How to Overcome Cultural Barriers to Communication in International Negotiations

Here are some negotiating tactics for overcoming cultural barriers to communication when counterparts are from a different culture or speak an entirely different language

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how to overcome cultural barriers to communication in international negotiations

As members of organizations and families, we all know from experience that even people with identical backgrounds can have vastly different negotiating styles and values. You will always need to overcome cultural barriers to communication. Nonetheless, we continue to be intrigued by the idea that distinct patterns emerge between negotiators from different cultures.

Researchers do confirm a relationship between national culture and negotiation style and success. An ongoing research project sponsored by Northwestern University’s Dispute Resolution Research Center is exploring the link between process and outcomes – specifically, how cultural tendencies lead to certain process choices, which, in turn, can lead to better or worse negotiation results.

One negotiation research study undertaken by the center has found that negotiators from the United States typically communicate their priorities more directly than do their Japanese counterparts.


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Because Japanese negotiators are generally good at making inferences, however, they match the performance of Americans in their ability to use information to make joint gains.

By contrast negotiators from Hong Kong and Russia do not create as much value as do American and Japanese negotiators, though for quite different reasons.

Hong Kong negotiators often fail to share enough information to identify beneficial tradeoffs, while Russian negotiators tend to rely too much on power tactics.

Although the findings confirm some familiar national stereotypes, it would be a grave mistake to assume that group tendencies reliably predict any one individual’s behavior (see also, International Negotiations and Cognitive Bias in Negotiations).

The important contribution of this research is that cultural barriers to negotiation don’t hinge precisely on where a negotiator happens to have been born. Rather, they depend on what that negotiator actually does at the bargaining table. The ability to engage in constructive communication – by revealing and interpreting information – matters much more than the negotiator’s passport.


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Related International Negotiation Article: Examples of Negotiation in Real Life: Culture at the Negotiation Table in International Negotiations

Originally published May 2012.

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