How To Negotiate Across Cultures

Understanding how to negotiate in any business setting, around the world, is a fantastic skill. It takes a depth of perception about the people you are working with as well as the business culture you are immersed in.

Communication is the most obvious global communication gap. It’s the first thing we usually encounter, one aspect of personal interaction that poses a clear barrier. Throughout the world, different cultures take a very different approach to negotiations — and a lot of it comes down to how they communicate. British linguist Richard D. Lewis, whose book “When Cultures Collide,” charts these different styles. Lewis himself is an accomplished linguist and speaks 10 languages.

How To Negotiate Culturally

Communication Patterns (Richard Lewis)
Communication Patterns (Richard Lewis)

His diagrams provide a visual model of how people from different cultures negotiate in meetings and other business dealings. The inset chart includes a number of his cultural models, where potential obstacles are grey, wide shapes imply greater conversational range, and annotations offer other hints and clues to negotiation style.

So, for example, Americans are notoriously straightforward, direct, and even confrontational. They tackle problems head on, launching into negotiations immediate (before building a strong relationship). In contrast, nearly all Asian cultures are much less direct. Meetings tend to be focused more on building relationships and gathering information, especially with Japanese and Chinese cultures. Indian culture, on the other hand, tends to engage in long, verbose, sociable dialogue but eventually leads to fierce negotiation and elaborate postulating, ultimately seeking a mutually agreeable compromise. Of Indian culture, Lewis writes, “Determination of price must come last, after all the benefits of the purchase or deal have been elaborated. Indians use all their communicative skills to get to the price indirectly.”

Lewis’ diagrams on cross cultural communication style and negotiation are an invaluable aid to the multinational manager. They serve to remind us that different cultures approach negotiation differently. Each has unique expectations. Where one culture may push quickly for closure, another may want to create a deep, long-term relationship. Understanding what your partner expects is key to success.

The Five Business Cultural Practices

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that communication style is but one of many cultural preferences. Knowing how your partner will communicate is like having one number for a five combination lock.

The unexperienced think immediately of language and communication skill as the essential core of International negotiations. But there are many more dimensions that deeply influence business practices — not just what language we speak, or how we communicate. For example, every cultureperceives time differently. Some cultures prize time highly, running business activities to a tight schedule. Others feel less driven by the agenda, instead taking time to get to know each other, valuing carefully thought out actions and relationships as more important than “meeting the schedule.”

I’ve periodically posted videos on other cultural preferences, too, including power distance and individualism. Developing a deep awareness of each one is absolutely necessary to truly understand and be successful in Global business.

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