How to Overcome Cultural Barriers in Communication – Cultural Approximations of Time and the Impact on Negotiations

Here are some negotiation techniques for bargainers wondering about how to overcome cultural barriers in communication in international negotiations

By on / International Negotiation

how to overcome cultural barriers in negotiation - telling time in international negotiation

Some of the most fundamental international negotiation skills to develop are negotiation strategies on how to overcome cultural barriers in communication. Despite the bloody conflicts in the Middle East, people of goodwill from both Arab and Western nations earnestly seek to collaborate in diplomatic and business transactions.

An article by Ilai Alon of Tel Aviv University and Jeanne M. Brett of Northwestern University, however, cautions that good intentions alone may not bridge cultural differences. Specifically, they note that conflicting conceptions of time can thwart negotiation.

For centuries, the West has operated on “clock time,” mechanically measuring out minutes and hours. By contrast, “event time” – how long it takes to get from one place to another or to complete a task – is traditionally more important in Middle Eastern cultures. At the most fundamental level, Islamic negotiators may have a more sweeping spiritual sense of time than do secular Westerners.


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.


How to Overcome Cultural Barriers in Communication – Bargaining Rituals at the Negotiation Table in Different Cultures

They tend to honor the distant past and have deep faith in a better world to come. Alon and Brett thus recommend that instead of focusing on present alternatives, effective argumentation is “much more likely to rely on precedents, history, metaphor, and models.”

They also note that Westerners can become impatient as rituals and seemingly idle conversation with negotiators from Middle Eastern cultures drag out the process. From the other side of the table, however, such interactions are essential to building trust in negotiations.

General cultural tendencies do not necessarily apply to specific individuals, of course, but it’s wise to recognize that your counterparts may see time very differently than you do.


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: Learning from International Negotiations – The Chen Guangcheng Crisis – The Obama administration was tested in June 2012 when Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped his home where he had been under house arrest and made it to the United States embassy in Beijing. To make matters more difficult for Obama’s team, this escape happened on the eve of the US and the People’s Republic of China’s annual negotiations regarding economic and geo-political issues. The negotiations involving Chen Guangcheng were conducted in secrecy, emphasizing the Chinese cultural norm of “saving face.” Learn how cultural norms influence negotiators at the bargaining table and how these norms influence the negotiation process and impact bargaining situations while negotiating in China.

Examples of Negotiation in Real Life: Overcoming Cultural Barriers at the Negotiation Table in International Negotiations – Cultural barriers to communication in business and international negotiations should not hinder the completion of a negotiated agreement nor should they stymie value creation efforts on either party’s part. In this article, negotiation case studies involving international bargaining scenarios are presented to offer negotiation skills tips to use in negotiation situations involving international counterparts or counterparts from different cultural backgrounds.

Overcoming Cultural Barriers to a Negotiated Agreement: Negotiation Ethics and International Negotiations – Negotiation ethics and negotiating across cultures present unique challenges for negotiators dealing with counterparts from a different cultural background. Language and a shared understanding of negotiation ethics are integral to negotiating viable agreements but what if negotiators are dealing with different ideas of ethics in negotiation and need to reconcile their understanding of ethical treatments and standards of fairness at the bargaining table with those of their counterpart.

International Negotiations: The Surprising Benefits of Conflict and Teamwork at the Negotiation Table – Learn how introducing elements of conflict within negotiating teams can benefit negotiators and ultimately led to better negotiated agreements. Using the case of teamwork between US President Barack Obama and his former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, this article discusses the power of a “team of rivals.”

Originally published 2012.

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