ESL Negotiation: Avoid Confusion and Conflict

In an ESL negotiation—one where at least one party is speaking English as a foreign language—costly misunderstandings and disputes are common. Here’s how to bridge language differences in ESL negotiation.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

esl negotiation

“The language of international business,” a British executive once said to Tufts University professor Jeswald Salacuse, “is broken English.” The observation is rooted in the fact that most international business and diplomacy is conducted in English, Salacuse writes in his book Negotiating Life: Secrets for Everyday Diplomacy and Deal Making (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

That can make things easier for American negotiators, many of whom don’t speak a foreign language well, if at all, as they can concentrate on their negotiation skills rather than on translation. But ESL negotiation—one involving at least one negotiator who speaks “English as a second language” (or third or fourth)—can lead to the following pitfalls:

  • In an ESL negotiation, it can be tempting to gloss over moments of confusion in an effort to sow goodwill and harmony. Later on, however, you may come to realize that you and your counterpart have very different understandings of your agreement. Such misunderstandings can lead to costly disputes and ill will.
  • A language barrier between negotiators can make talks incredibly frustrating. As irritation grows, tempers may flare. And residual annoyance can lead an ESL negotiation to become more competitive and less collaborative than it could be.
  • The Temptation to Deceive. The native English speaker in an ESL negotiation may be tempted to take advantage of his or her counterpart’s lack of understanding of certain English words, terms, or turns of phrase. Such deceptive tactics in negotiation would be a mistake, as they can lead to conflict and perhaps even a lawsuit.
  • Wasted Time. Language differences in an ESL negotiation can prolong talks, tying up everyone’s valuable time and leading to delays.

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Head off an ESL Negotiation with an Interpreter

The most obvious solution to these potential pitfalls in ESL negotiation is to hire an interpreter. In the form of “consecutive interpretation” most frequently used in business negotiations, negotiators speak in short chunks, which are translated on the spot by one or more interpreters.

Adding an interpreter to an ESL negotiation can enhance the benefits of negotiation in business, but it can bring its own complications. Rather than getting to know one another directly, parties must rely on the interpreter to convey what they have to say, writes Salacuse in Negotiating Life. Hiring interpreters also increases the short-term cost of negotiation, though it can help you avoid the long-term costs of misunderstandings that arise from language barriers.

ESL Negotiation, Interpreted

In Negotiating Life, Salacuse presents a number of guidelines for negotiating through interpreters, six of which we summarize here:

  1. Hire your own interpreter. It’s smart to hire your own interpreter rather than relying on the other side’s interpreter. In many countries, the linguistic ability of people who call themselves “professional interpreters” varies quite a bit, and you’ll want to avoid hiring someone mediocre.
  2. Brief your interpreter before negotiations start. Interpreters seldom will know the business context of your deal. For this reason, brief your interpreter beforehand on the background of the negotiation: the nature of your company, its business, and the deal you hope to arrange. And be careful to explain the type of translation you expect, such as word-for-word translation or a summary.
  3. Stay on guard. Some interpreters, because of personal interests or ego, will try to take control of negotiations or skew them toward one party, cautions Salacuse. This risk may be high if the interpreter also works as an agent or consultant and is hoping for future business opportunities from your deal. Learn enough about any interpreters involved to determine potential conflicts of interest, then stay alert to ensure they don’t add personal business advice.
  4. Be sure to “chunk” it. When you negotiate in consecutive translation, speak in short, bite-size chunks, pausing after each one to give the interpreter a chance to translate your words. Inexperienced negotiators can become so engrossed in delivering their message that they forget to pause, which can contribute to inaccurate translations.
  5. Give interpreters frequent breaks. Interpreting is demanding and exhausting work, so give your interpreter frequent time-outs to rest and clear her mind.
  6. Learn from your interpreter. Interpreters typically can offer negotiators a wealth of knowledge about the parties’ culture, business practices, and motives. For this reason, work on building a friendly, trusting relationship with any interpreters involved in your negotiations.

What other tips can you offer those preparing for an ESL negotiation?


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