Overcoming Cultural Barriers

By on / Business Negotiations

Adapted from “What Gets Lost in Translation,” by Lawrence Susskind (professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

Even with a common language and the best of intentions, negotiators from different cultures face special challenges. Try following these guidelines when preparing for talks with someone from a different culture:

1. Research your counterpart’s background and experience.

With a little homework, you should be able to learn who your negotiating partner will be and find out some details about her background and experience. If your counterpart has a great deal of international negotiating experience, you can probably assume that cultural stereotyping (and any effort to modify your negotiating strategy accordingly) is likely to create new communication difficulties rather than solve old ones. If you have trouble getting information about your negotiating partner, ask an intermediary with contacts at that firm or organization to make inquiries for you. (Be sure the intermediary understands that he is not authorized to make any commitments on your behalf.)

2. Enlist an adviser from your counterpart’s culture.

If you discover that the person with whom you are likely to be negotiating has little or no international or cross-cultural experience, consider enlisting someone from his culture to serve as your “second” during the negotiation. Rather than deferring to this adviser during talks, plan out signals in advance to indicate when you should take a break for additional advice. In this manner, your cultural “guide” can help you size up the situation, coach you as needed, and even interject if he feels you have made an egregious error or misinterpretation.

3. Pay close attention to unfolding negotiation dynamics.

Listen carefully during talks. If you’re unsatisfied with the answers you receive, reframe your questions and try again. If you’re unsure about what the other side said, repeat what you think you heard.  It’s safe to assume that people living and working in different cultural settings often view or interpret the same events differently. But in our era of globalization, it’s also true that we have more in common on the person-to-person level than you might expect. Don’t ignore your intuition, and mind your manners.

Most business professionals recognize when they need technical or legal expertise to proceed with a deal-making interaction. Similarly, cross-cultural negotiators should realize that they might well need help sizing up the situation in advance, as well as interpreting the signals and norms that could make or break a negotiation in a crosscultural context.

Related Article: Dealmaking – Before You Sign on the Dotted Line

Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a FREE copy of our Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals special report from Harvard Law School.

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2 Responses to “Overcoming Cultural Barriers”

  1. Joanna Voller /

    I have found that reading fiction and travel guides from the country with whom I am working has given me valuable insights into the people I will negotiate with, as well as into their customers/consumers. When visiting the country, I try to resist the temptation to immediately put the hotel TV on BBC or CNN but rather to watch their national news and read their national newspapers to understand what is important to them Spending time sitting in the hotel Lobby observing and listening to people meeting and introducing themselves often gives you many clues on local cultural practices and helps you absorb yourself in their world. This can increase your understanding of the people you are working with and begin to reveal how they think and approach situations Reply

  2. Omar Khan /

    Sometimes when visiting other countries on business trips, people from the host country would be interested in knowing your (American's) view point on the national / regional political scene. I have found it best to avoid getting sucked into discussions concerning politics, religion or regional conflicts. In some cultures people can get highly emotional about how an American views their country or region’s political climate. The best way to play it safe is to ask the host to enlighten you on the subject matter or better yet change the topic to popular music, customs, folklore or local places of interest. I listen well, show genuine interest and get to know the hosts while keeping in mind; I am there on business trip and a relational visit. It often leads to a pleasant & stress free session of negotiations. Reply

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