Culture and Teaching Negotiation: A Presentation by David Fairman

By — on / Teaching Negotiation

David Fairman is the Managing Director of the Consensus Building Institute (CBI) where he leads CBI’s International Development practice, working with multilateral development agencies, governments, and other national partners to institutionalize collaborative approaches to planning, policy and project decision making. Fairman is also Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.

Fairman shared his extensive experience in negotiating with, and teaching negotiation to, a variety of groups from a broad range of cultural backgrounds. An edited video that includes Fairman’s talk, as well as that of co-presenters Eileen Babbitt and Jeswald Salacuse, can be found here. Below is a brief sample from this 45 minute video.

Elements of Culture
Before breaking culture down into its component parts, Fairman offered a succinct definition of culture as a set of “unspoken, learned assumptions that create norms for expected behavior in a group.”

According to Fairman, key aspects of culture relevant to negotiation include:

  • Communication: What is said, what is not
  • Character: What traits are respected and valued
  • Relationships: Trust building and violation
  • Transactions: Appropriate process and fair outcomes
  • Conflicts: Acknowledgement, process for resolution, fair outcomes

Fairman shared further thoughts on these aspects of culture, and showed how they played out in his experience teaching, facilitating and coaching negotiators in different cultural contexts.

Fairman explained the importance of trying to understand “what traits make someone a respectable negotiator” in a given culture. Does a certain culture respect a tough negotiator? A smart dealmaker? A deferential counterpart?

Ultimately, knowing this gives teachers and trainers a glimpse into how a culture values interpersonal relationships and sheds light on deep issues like identity and what it means to be a “good” person within this culture.

With regard to relationship-building, Fairman remarked that the actual process by which relationships form within a culture is a key ingredient in understanding how meaningful connections occur. Where two Americans might unload their life stories over a half-hour in a bar, he noted, a more restrained European duo might take much more time to reveal such personal details.

Becoming familiar with culturally appropriate ways for individuals to build relationships and trust can be a boon to educators looking to leverage such connections in the classroom.

On conflict, Fairman posited the idea that in the “integrative/distributive world that we live in, conflict is in some ways omnipresent”. While individuals handle conflict in many different ways, their process for handling that tension is likely influenced by their culture.

Knowing the culturally accepted processes for dealing with various types of conflict empowers teachers and trainers to add awareness and relevant context to their lessons in that culture.

Ethno-national vs. Professional and Organizational Culture
One of the central themes that Fairman focused on is the notion that professional culture (e.g. that of engineers, politicians, writers, etc.) and organizational culture (that of IBM, US Forest Service, World Bank, etc.) can often be as significant as, and even supplant, ethno-national culture (USA, Russia, Basque, Roma, etc.). This is particularly notable in a group Fairman described as the “global upper middle class, for whom national culture’s influence has long been filtered and diffused through higher ed, international travel, the internet, and ongoing professional relationships around the world – virtual and… face-to-face”.

To illustrate this point, Fairman noted his work in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that he believes is a “wonderful microcosm of the globalized world, and demonstrates just how diffuse ethno-national culture can be relative to organizational culture, even when national identities continue to play a significant role in organizational politics.”

UNDP has its own negotiation culture, driven far more by organizational requirements and norms than by the national backgrounds of its staff. When UNDP representatives negotiate with governments, Fairman described the process as a “tacit… transactional… negotiation” between unequal partners. Due to the power imbalance, where the government’s resources and BATNAs were often far better than UNDP’s, Fairman made it clear that the formal framing of the negotiation, even the relationship, was intensely important not only as a source of leverage for UNDP, but also as a set of cultural norms for the organization.

Using Edward T. Hall’s (1976) definition of high/low-context cultures, Fairman recognized how such a strict expectation to adhere to explicit norms can be frustrating, especially when high-context cultures (indirect) are tasked with exhibiting such low-context culture (direct) behavior.

Role-playing in South Korea
Fairman recalled a training experience in South Korea where issues of organizational culture and national culture compounded to make certain aspects of training quite difficult.

A central theme of Fairman’s program, unscripted role-playing, was rejected by one of his South Korean clients, a person who was junior within their organization, days before the program was to begin. The client preferred instead to script the role-play scenario. Fairman’s South Korea-based program coordinator acquiesced to the last-minute change to the program, much to Fairman’s dismay.

Fairman was emphatic about the value of unscripted role-playing, as an indispensible aid in practicing negotiation skills. However, he discovered the source of concern for his client was the fact that the training would take place in full view of this junior client’s senior colleagues. This raised concerns with the junior client about their ability to save face¬—a potentially sensitive topic in this particular national culture—and possibly jeopardized the junior member’s job security should they not perform adequately—an issue of their organizational culture.

Ultimately Fairman, in collaboration with his clients, both senior and junior, as well as colleagues in the region, was able to convince the group to proceed with the role-play scenarios as planned, with assurances that all participants, senior and junior, would undertake the role play as a learning experience and not a performance to be evaluated.

The lesson Fairman took from this experience was that no matter how low-context and explicit a teacher may be about the intention of negotiation training, the counterparts at the table may not initially be willing, or culturally primed, to act in kind.

Final Thoughts
In closing, Fairman advised educators to approach unique cross-cultural experiences with respect and sensitivity, but also confidence. After all, if you are in a situation, either by invitation or commission, you have likely been solicited because your hosts deem your insights valuable.

While accepting that there is much to teach, Fairman emphatically endorsed the idea that there is also much to learn. He recommended that educators be curious about the experiences and expectations their students might bring to the table.

What do folks we’re going to be working with already know and believe from their own history about what good negotiation is? What are their stories? What are their theories? Take [this information] seriously. Engage it.

Fairman warns educators to be conscious of the degree of separation they might have from their students, both geographical and cultural, and compensate accordingly by consulting with “culture brokers who can reality check us… and help us understand why they’re not answering our questions the way we thought they would or should”.

Finally, Fairman echoed his earlier note of caution and questioned the light evidence base that culture actually matters as much, or more, than other factors in negotiation. He suggested that more observational research about what gets triggered culturally versus situationally or individually would be a great place to start in an effort to help settle this question.

Reference List
Fairman, D. (2014, November 18). Cross-Cultural Negotiation: What Is There To Teach About? Lecture presented at TNRC Faculty Dinner Seminar in Harvard University, Cambridge.

Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.

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