How to Resolve Cultural Conflict: Overcoming Cultural Barriers at the Negotiation Table

Understand cultural norms while avoiding stereotypes when negotiating across cultures

By on / Conflict Resolution

After recently losing an important deal in India, a business negotiator learned that her counterpart felt as if she had been rushing through the talks. The business negotiator thought she was being efficient with their time. In this useful cross-cultural negotiation example, how should this negotiator improve her negotiation skills?

Research shows that dealmaking across cultures tends to lead to worse outcomes as compared with negotiations conducted within the same culture. This is primarily because cultures are characterized by different behaviors, communication styles, and norms. As a result, when negotiating across cultures, we bring different perspectives to the bargaining table, which in turn may result in potential misunderstandings and a lower likelihood of exploring and discovering integrative, or value-creating, solutions.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

Cultural differences in negotiations tend to occur for two main reasons. First, when confronting cultural differences, we tend to rely on stereotypes. Stereotypes are often pejorative (for example: Italians always run late), and they can lead to distorted expectations about your counterpart’s behavior as well as potentially costly misinterpretations.

Instead of relying on stereotypes, try to focus on prototypes—cultural averages on dimensions of behavior or values.

For example, it is commonly understood that Japanese negotiators tend to have more silent periods during their talks than, say, Brazilians. That said, there is still a great deal of variability within each culture—meaning that some Brazilians speak less than some Japanese do.

Thus, it would be a mistake to expect a Japanese negotiator you have never met to be reserved. But if it turns out that a negotiator is especially quiet, you might better understand her behavior in light of the prototype. In addition, awareness of your own cultural prototypes can help you anticipate how your counterpart might interpret your bargaining behavior.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

A second common reason for cross-cultural misunderstandings is that we tend to interpret others’ behaviors, values, and beliefs through the lens of our own culture. To overcome this tendency, we need to learn about the other party’s culture. This means not only researching the customs and behaviors of different cultures but also understanding why people follow these customs and exhibit these behaviors in the first place.

Just as important, not only do countries have unique cultures, but teams and organizations do, too. Before any negotiation, take time to study the context and the person on the other side of the bargaining table, including the various cultures to which he belongs—whether the culture of France, the culture of engineering, or his particular company’s corporate culture.

In this cross cultural negotiation example, the negotiator learned after the fact that her Indian counterpart would have appreciated a slower pace with more opportunities for relationship building. She seems to have run into the second issue: Using time efficiently in the course of negotiations is generally valued in the United States, but in India, there is often a greater focus on building relationships early in the process.

As this business negotiator has observed, cultural differences can represent barriers to reaching an agreement in negotiation. But remember that differences also can be opportunities to create valuable agreements. This suggests that cross-cultural negotiations may be particularly rife with opportunities for counterparts to capitalize on different preferences, priorities, beliefs, and values.

Related Article: Dealing with Difficult People – The Right Way to Regulate Emotion – How to correctly project emotion at the bargaining table is a negotiation skill the best negotiator’s have mastered. How do emotions change negotiation strategy and what negotiating skills and negotiation tactics can bargainers use involving emotions at the negotiation table? This article offers some negotiation skills advice and bargaining tips based on negotiation research.

Adapted from “Dear Negotiation Coach: Crossing Cultures in Negotiation,” by Francesca Gino (Associate Professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter, September 2013.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

Originally published 2014.

5 Responses to “How to Resolve Cultural Conflict: Overcoming Cultural Barriers at the Negotiation Table”

  1. Hussein tarabeih /

    I agree, please send mor articles in this feild, best Reply

  2. Hideyuki Takahashi /

    I am in agreement that it is critical to take time to study the context and the person. However, in an inter-cultural communication, it is difficult to assess the value or meaning of a specific behaviour or thoughts of the other party from your own point of view, which has been formed in a specific cultural background. That is, you see it but you do not recognized it. Reply

  3. Dmitry Makhin /

    Many thanks for describing and comparing all the points. They are crutial, valuable and worth to study and use in the field. Having experience I have got working for the International Criminal Court in the Hague the Netherlands with colleagues from all over the world I absolutely agree with all the information presented. Reply

  4. Nicholas Harkiolakis /

    This case is a filtering issue. If we see perceptions filtered through layers of personal traits, family and cultural traits everything we communicate is affect by each one of these layers. Same thing happens in the receiver side. Stereotypes are like biased filters. They tend to allow more of some "colors" than others. Still though its up to the "color" each individual emits and this can be much different from what we believe it should emit. This image probably best describes the above: http://e-negotiations.org/chapters/4-perception Reply

  5. MBOLO BEKOUTI Alphonse CyrilleM /

    This article is very interesting, and we should admit that cross cultural negotiations are very difficult. For example, in the case where an American negotiator is conscious of the difference of culture between him and his Chinese counterpart, and thinks that he should adopt the Chinese method of negotiation, while his Chinese partner also thinks that to avoid misunderstandings he should adopt the American culture of negotiation. That could tangle up the negotiators, and could be perceived by each negotiator as a refusal to negotiate from the other part, don't understanding that his counterpart wants to behave like him to facilitate the negotiations. To avoid this scenario, the solution could be simple. One party could at the beginning of the negotiation tell to the other that he/she will wishes that the negotiation to be made in his counterpart's culture, to avoid misunderstandings. I really think it could greatly avoid misunderstandings, and where it appears, the counterpart will not first interpret the other's gesture as hostile, but will first try to understand, knowing that his counterpart has expressed a real will to negotiate, and the misunderstanding is probably due to the cultural difference.By so doing, cross cultural negotiations could be eased. Reply

Leave a Comment