Dear Negotiation Coach: When Time is Not Money at the Negotiation Table

The perception of time is a critical cultural difference that, though often invisible at the negotiation table, has an important impact on whether you can seal the deal.

By — on / International Negotiation

negotiation table

Q: I have been doing a lot of business deals in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia. With all due respect, negotiations seem to drag on and on in that part of the world. How can I negotiate effectively in this situation at the negotiation table?

A: You’ve picked up on a critical cultural difference that, though often invisible at the negotiation table, has an important impact on whether you can seal the deal: the perception of time. Cultures around the world vary tremendously in how they view time, and these differences can lead to frustration and lost value at the table.

Americans in general are socialized to view time as money. In negotiation, this means that once the clock starts ticking, we’re focused on getting to yes as efficiently as possible. When talks move slowly (by our standards), we can get frustrated and impatient.

In one study, Elizabeth Salmon and I and our team found that American negotiators, as compared to Middle Eastern negotiators, such as the Lebanese, tend to view time as more condensed and are more impatient as a result. Sensing the ticking clock, we try to minimize small talk and move quickly to substantive issues. Unfortunately, our research also shows that the more impatient American negotiators are, the worse their personal financial outcomes. In our rush to the finish line, we tend to concede more, earn less profit, and insult our counterparts from less hurried cultures in the process.

Ultimately, leaving your watch at home and being patient at the negotiation table when negotiating abroad will help you gain value at the table. As you think about your personal approach to time, keep these four guidelines in mind:

1. Improve your cultural intelligence in advance.

In cross-cultural negotiations, your cultural intelligence quotient, or CQ, is a primary key to success. You can cultivate your CQ by educating yourself about other cultures, interacting with people from different cultures, and being willing to adapt your strategies to the situation. Far beyond negotiators’ cognitive abilities or personalities, having a high CQ helps them create win-win solutions, we’ve found in our research.

2. Change your mindset at the negotiation table.

In the West, we often think about negotiations in terms of sports metaphors, but in many other cultures, relationship cultivation is a more appropriate metaphor. When negotiating in the Middle East, for example, understand that you likely will not cover the tangible aspects of the deal during your first few meetings. Rather, you’ll be negotiating intangibles—such as how to attain the other party’s trust and show that you are an honorable and respectful person. Focusing on such intangibles in the Middle East is critical for attaining win-win agreements, my colleagues and I have found.

3. Understand the roots of cultural differences at the negotiation table.

Cultural differences in negotiation often relate to long-standing ecological and historical conditions. For example, a traditionally Western negotiating style—in which counterparts trust each other swiftly, separate the people from the problem, and get right down to business—is well suited to the ecology of the United States, with its strong legal institutions (which protect us from cheaters), abundant natural resources (which make us less reliant on others), and high mobility (which makes us feel comfortable with strangers). In cultures with weak institutions, unpredictable resources, and low mobility (and thus few interactions with strangers), by contrast, it is more rational to be distrustful of new counterparts and to devote considerable time to assessing their trustworthiness. Understanding why cultural differences evolved can give us greater empathy for our counterparts’ cultural reflexes—and they for ours.

4. Demonstrate trust and signal your reputation early on.

Trust and reputation are your real currency in the Middle East and many other cultures, and they will ultimately reap high dividends at the negotiation table. Our research on professional negotiators in the Middle East from a wide variety of sectors, for example, shows that even simple behaviors—such as demonstrating humility, dressing in professional attire, and arriving on time—communicate that you are a person of honor who respects your counterpart. By comparison, appearing selfish or arrogant, interrupting others, or even looking at your phone can signal a lack of respect that will sour the deal.

Understanding the rational basis of seemingly frustrating behaviors, such as a relaxed approach to time, will help you negotiate effectively anywhere around the globe.

Michele Gelfand
Professor of Psychology and Affiliate of the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland

How do you handle the pressure of time at the negotiation table? Do you handle it differently in other countries?

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
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