How to Overcome Cultural Barriers at the Negotiation Table

What is the role of negotiation in international business? To foster understanding and agreement between counterparts of different cultural backgrounds

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How to Overcome Cultural Barriers at the Negotiation Table

Intercultural negotiations are common these days—and so are culture clashes. Here’s how to handle the added complexity such talks can bring.

Imagine that you’re the American representative of a U.S. food company, and you’re hoping to procure a new ingredient for several of your products from a German company. A representative from the company is flying in to meet with you. Do you expect your German counterpart to behave differently than the Americans you typically deal with, and if so, how? Will you adapt your negotiating style according to your expectations and overcome any cultural barriers in negotiation? Read on for some detailed tips on how to do just that.


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.


Now imagine instead that your counterpart represents a Chinese company or that your counterpart is from Mexico.

Will you plan a different negotiating strategy depending on whether your counterpart is from China, Mexico, or some other country?

If you’re like most people, you wisely understand that cultural differences are likely to be a factor in negotiations. Yet new research suggests that negotiators, to their detriment, may give too much weight to cultural factors when preparing for talks.

In our global marketplace, there will probably be times when you find yourself dealing with people from other cultures,whether at home or abroad. We’ll show you why many negotiators place too much emphasis on cultural variations, and how to broaden your focus.

How to Overcome Cultural Barriers in Negotiation and the Assumptions We Make

What expectations did you form regarding your hypothetical German, Chinese, and Mexican counterparts?

If you’ve read up on the topic, you may have some specific ideas about how to negotiate with people from particular countries.

In his book How to Negotiate Anything with Anyone Anywhere Around the World (Amacom, Third Edition, 2008), for example, Frank L. Acuff advises readers to expect Germans to be reserved, hard bargainers who may be offended by personal questions and tardiness.

Those negotiating with Chinese counterparts are cautioned to avoid direct questions and to prepare to make numerous concessions. And negotiators doing business with Mexicans are told to expect an expressive communication style and a lengthy rapport-building process. Books are just one form of information, along with films, television shows, and personal experience, that help to shape such intercultural negotiating schemas, which provide a quick, easy way of reading a foreign counterpart.

Ideally, our intercultural negotiation schemas help us avoid blunders when negotiating with a foreign counterpart and also help us understand behavior that might otherwise be puzzling.

Related International Negotiation Article: Conflict Resolution and Negotiation Across Cultures – Dealing with counterparts from different cultural backgrounds is one of the more challenging negotiation scenarios bargainers will face in their careers. Different approximations of time, different attitudes towards the negotiation process, and even a different language all substantively impact the course of negotiations. What negotiating skills and negotiation tactics can negotiators use to minimize the impact different cultures have at the negotiation table and what negotiation strategies can be used to build successfully negotiated agreements and maintain business relationships. Drawn from negotiation case studies, this article examines the universal and particular aspects of negotiation as they play out at bargaining tables across the world.

Cross-Cultural Communication: Translation and Negotiation – Dealing with a counterpart who speaks a different language presents unique challenges to even the best negotiators. How do you reconcile the cultural barrier to communication while also achieving your negotiation objectives? This article offers a negotiation case study and infers negotiating skills and negotiation techniques applicable to a wide-range of intercultural negotiation scenarios, from sales negotiations to diplomatic negotiations.


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.


Adapted from “Coping with Culture at the Bargaining Table,” first published in the May 2009 issue of Negotiation.

Originally published 2014.

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