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

Avoid cultural conflict by avoiding stereotypes when negotiating across cultures

By on / Conflict Resolution

cultural conflict

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.

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

  • Hideyuki T.

    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.

  • Dmitry M.

    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.

  • Nicholas H.

    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:

  • MBOLO B.

    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.

  • AINAH B.

    in my opinion, as negotiator we must know that we meet all types of people from many difference cultures, it is a common sense that we must learn or adapt from others’ culture and not judge the book by its cover.

  • Rebecca L.

    Like so much in Interculturel Communications, these small anecdotal scenarios are logically analyzed, but in living color impossible to predict. Our problem is not how to introduce students to such case studies, but how to prepare young professionals for true encounters and disaster avoidance. In truth, let’s be honest…it is impossible without living it.

  • Ben-Errol D.

    Thanks. This is a valuable piece of discourse and very relevant to the peacebuilding initiatives/peace process in Mindanao, Philippines. I would like to think that civil society (local homegrown NGOs especially) has always been advocating this track in resolving the decades-long conflict in Mindanao (Southern Philippines) but the central government in Manila has always been calling the shots. The basic principle on Cultural Relativism in not just in the vocabulary of a unitary government.
    Hope to read more on this.

  • Cecilia M.

    Cross-cultural communication requires intercultural competence to be able to identify the underlying values behind the visible behavior observed on the negotiating table. Barriers often occur when one is trapped in own’s perspectives- as the saying goes, “we see according to what we know”.

  • Perhaps one might consider diversifying negotiation teams to include more voices and perspectives from a wider range of cultural backgrounds.


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