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

Avoid cultural conflict by avoiding stereotypes when negotiating across cultures

By Katie Shonkon / Conflict Resolution

After 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. Their cultures have different views on how to conduct negotiations, and in this case, the barrier prevented a successful outcome. In this useful cross cultural conflict negotiation example, we explore what this negotiator could have done differently to 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. The reason is primarily that 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. Misunderstandings can lead to a lower likelihood of exploring and discovering integrative, or value-creating, solutions. Let’s talk about the main causes of cross cultural negotiation failure.


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 conflict in negotiations tends to occur for two main reasons. First, it’s fairly common when confronting cultural differences, for people 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. You should never assume cultural stereotypes going into a negotiation.

Instead of relying on stereotypes, you should try to focus on prototypes—cultural averages on dimensions of behavior or values. There is a big difference between stereotypes and prototypes.

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 and change your negotiating approach 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. It’s not just about being aware of their culture, but also how yours might be viewed.


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, it is important to learn as much as you can about the other party’s culture. This means not only researching the customs and behaviors of different cultures but also by 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 partaking in any negotiation, you should take the 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. The more you know about the client, the better off you will do in any negotiation.

In this cross cultural conflict negotiation example, we see that the negotiator has 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. By doing research on the clients cultural prototypes, they can adjust their negotiation strategy and give themselves a better chance at creating a valuable negotiation experience for both themselves and their counterpart.

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 conflict 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 – Knowing how to correctly project emotion at the bargaining table is a negotiation skill that the best negotiators 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.

Do you have any advice on how to solve cultural conflict? What experiences have you had that might help our other readers? We would love to hear from you.

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.