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Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Negotiations

Posted April 27, 2018 in Articles

While effective communication skills are critical to any successful complex transaction, a recent study suggests that they take on heightened importance in cross-cultural negotiations. As reported by Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, the study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology concluded that:

“The effectiveness of your communications with a negotiation counterpart may have a stronger impact on your results in cross-cultural negotiations than in same-culture negotiations . . . Overall, the [study] showed that pairs of negotiators from different cultures had lower-quality communications and, consequently, reached worse outcomes than pairs from the same culture. Interestingly, [however,] the relatively small number of cross-cultural pairs who overcame such communication difficulties actually achieved better outcomes than negotiators from the same culture. Why? With communication barriers out of the way, these cross-cultural pairs capitalized on their differences to reach more creative agreements . . . .”

However, the article on the Program on Negotiation’s blog also cautions against overemphasizing cultural sensitivity: “You don’t want to offend your counterpart with insensitive behavior, but focusing too much on culture can backfire.” Specifically, attempting to fully adopt a counterparty’s negotiation style overlooks the fact that your counterparty will attempt to adapt to your cultural norms as well, and the more-important consideration is getting to know your counterparty personally through pre-negotiation research and due diligence.

The article also highlights the potential for attempted cultural sensitivity to lead to stereotyping, which can backfire when trying to foster a relationship or build a working rapport.

Tips for Appropriately Factoring Cultural Differences into Cross-Border Business Negotiations

The Program on Negotiation offers a free download, International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives, which is well worth the read. This report provides five recommendations for effective cross-cultural negotiations:

1. Weigh Culture Against Other Important Factors

Research has confirmed “a relationship between national culture and negotiation style and success.” However, it is crucial not to overlook individual negotiators’ personal traits.

2. Prepare for Possible Cultural Barriers

In order to proactively address potential barriers, the report recommends that cross-cultural negotiators: (i) research their counterparties’ background and experience, (ii) hire a local cultural advisor, and (iii) focus on the dynamic aspects of the negotiation rather than assuming adherence to cultural norms.

3. Deal with Translators

Experienced translators who are expert linguists and who understand the business aspects of your transaction can assist in maintaining continuity and avoiding misunderstandings during negotiations.

4. Avoid Ethical Stereotypes

“[N]egotiators are more likely to assume that people from other cultures are behaving unethically than they are to realize that standards of ethical behavior vary.” Consider the potential for ethical variances and avoid rushing to judgment.

5. Consider the Team Approach

The key word here is “consider.” While studies have shown that teams of negotiators can be more effective under many circumstances, it is important to, “think through cultural and contextual factors before deciding whether to face your counterpart with a team or by yourself.”

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