How to Negotiate in Cross-Cultural Situations

Five Ways to Redefine Negotiation in Cross-Cultural Situations

By — on / Leadership Skills

cross-cultural situations

Figuring out how to negotiate in cross-cultural situations can seem like a daunting endeavor, and for good reason. Negotiating across the cultural divide adds an entire dimension to any negotiation, introducing language barriers, differences in body language and dress, and alternative ways of expressing pleasure or displeasure with the elements of a deal. As a result, many negotiators fear that they might accidentally scuttle an important deal or do something that causes lasting shame. A handful of fundamental negotiating skills can be put in to practice easily in order to overcome these fears, redefine negotiation in an international context, and better understand how to negotiate in cross-cultural situations.

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Adapt to New Processes

Getting accustomed to different processes in a negotiation can be challenging, but a willingness to embrace your counterpart’s way of doing business can be essential. This is especially true when a negotiator is visiting their counterpart in their home country. While this can feel overwhelming, it is important to remember that we negotiate in cross-cultural situations all the time. For example, any businessperson who negotiates with another business has prepared for that negotiation by studying their counterpart’s company “culture.” That culture has the same set of rituals, preferences, priorities that can or cannot be negotiated.

Preparing for a cross-cultural negotiation requires the same careful preparation, and done properly, preparation and a willingness to adapt to new processes can help a negotiator get to the fundamental issues of a negotiation without obsessively thinking about the process. For example, the Paris Climate talks in 2015 were reportedly structured using a South African process called indaba as their framework. Participants were aware of the process, and many had never negotiated using it before, but by preparing for the negotiations with the fundamentals in mind, negotiators from across the world reached an agreement.

Negotiate Important Issues Separately

Understanding the importance of negotiating respectfully with a counterpart should be paramount in any situation. When preparing for how to negotiate in cross-cultural situations, the same rules apply, but for that reason, they need not overwhelm one’s preparation. Negotiation comes down to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement over issues that matter to all of the parties, and that means getting to the issues. Sometimes it also means separating them out and negotiating each one distinctly.

In the 2015 United States-Iran Nuclear Talks, it became clear to the lead negotiators that a host of issues were in play, from the political to the technical, and all of them were of the utmost importance. Instead of trying to negotiate them in the same fashion, the two teams agreed that the technical issues of nuclear physics should be negotiated by experts from both sides, away from the table where the political issues were being negotiated. While the two sets of negotiations informed one another, separating out the issues created space in which negotiators could focus on the most important elements of a deal without distraction. Where issues and positions can quickly become indistinguishable from one another in a cross-cultural negotiation, separating the issues can be an effective way to get to the best outcome.

Listen to Your Interpreter

Being able to speak the language of a counterpart can seem like a tremendous advantage in a challenging negotiation, and sometimes it is. Yet language can also be deceptive, leading a negotiator to believe they have a window into the other side that may not be as clear as we might think. Precise language is the key to creating lasting agreements, and attempts to speak the language of the other side can undermine that precision with misunderstanding. Negotiation experts often advise having a trusted interpreter at your side instead.

Interpreters can provide valuable information and can interpret critical information more quickly from the other side. When negotiating the creation of the Gulf War Coalition, former Secretary of State James Baker grew frustrated with a counterpart, forcefully closed his notebook and prepared to stand up and leave. At that very moment, his interpreter told him to wait, and that his frustration had moved his counterpart. Sure enough, within moments, an hours-long negotiation came to an end and Baker got what he wanted, but it would never have happened without a trusted interpreter at his side.

Break Bread Together

American negotiators prize the idea of “getting down to business,” and negotiators from other countries around the world do too, but not always. In many cultures, tackling the issues of a negotiation head-on neglects an important social element that is just as necessary for creating a lasting deal. As the United States builds closer ties with Argentina, President Obama found himself in just such a situation at a state dinner with his counterpart in Buenos Aires in March.

As part of the dinner, Obama and the other guests were treated to a tango, and suddenly the President was asked to join in. He quickly obliged, to the amazement of the onlookers. As much as any potential deals between the United States and Argentina, this simple act of participating in a respectful bridging across cultures had an immediate, and significant impact on the relationship between the two countries.

You Can Still Say No

Understanding how to negotiate in cross-cultural situations requires constant learning, curiosity, and respect, but the rewards can be immeasurable. Perhaps the most challenging aspect to prepare for is how to manage a negotiation where you do not reach an agreement. There is an added feeling of pressure to reach a deal when one goes to great efforts to reach out to a potential counterpart, but going into a negotiation with this in mind can be the most valuable asset, because a respectful no can become “not now,” and lead to unexpected agreements down the road instead. By using these five approaches to cross-cultural negotiations, you can begin to forge those kinds of relationships and the lasting agreements that come with them.

Have you experienced cross-cultural situations during negotiations? Leave a comment.

Real Leaders Negotiate

Claim your FREE copy: Real Leaders Negotiate

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.

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2 Responses to “How to Negotiate in Cross-Cultural Situations”

  • Torsten p.

    Assuming you are referring to the Harvard Negotiation and Leadership Skills article: The author offers several helpful suggestions for how to navigate cross-cultural negotiations. However, they fail to mention a critical piece of advice- to do your research ahead of time. Knowing about your counterpart’s culture (e.g. how they communicate, what they value, etc.) is essential for a successful negotiation. Without this knowledge, it will be difficult to build trust and come to an agreement. Additionally, the author suggests that you “be prepared to make some concessions.” This may be true in some cases, but it is important to remember that you should never concede on your key objectives. Doing so will likely result in an unfavorable outcome for you and your company.

  • Helga V.

    thank you for these valuable insights. I share your observations and views. A few additional thoughts based on my own experience:
    – language isn’t just about words: English is often used as a common language. Don’t overestimate the “common” aspect of speaking English across cultural and language divides, and beyond the obvious issues that come with people being out of their depth or simply less precise in their second (or fifth ;)) language, a conversation is not an exchange of words as defined in the dictionary. “Maybe” or “later” mean very different things in different cultures, from “yes but I don’t want to give in yet” over “what a mad idea but I don’t want to make your loose face” to “no way”. Also, expressing respect varies across cultures, it is not uncommon to have people use first names in English, but revert to the polite form or even “Professor” when they break up to speak in their own team. Also, the person speaking is often the one most fluent in English, it might not be the decision maker, so ensure you keep eye contact with the entire negotiation team.
    – Humour is very cultural. Not everyone appreciates it the way the Brits or Americans do.


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