The art of cross-cultural negotiations

When you are faced with a challenging and complex multicultural negotiation, where do you start? 

The first consideration must be - what is the negotiation objective and strategy of each party? Is it to win, achieve a win-win outcome, reach a fair agreement, or maximise the gains?

At the heart of this negotiation process lies the value discovery phase, which should reveal what each party’s interests are; because a negotiation has no value if it does not satisfy at least one party’s interests.

The starting point must be putting all the interests on the table, categorising and then prioritising them. Sharing interests builds trust and mutual confidence through transparency, and the parties are then better able to create value for each other. 
Single issues limit the scope and if negotiators broaden the issues to discuss more issues, there is more potential for mutual value. If there are different interests, these can be traded; if there are conflicting interests, then contingent clauses can be added.

If negotiations start with interests rather than positions, then the negotiation becomes more mutualised immediately and there is a stronger interdependence between the two parties. The fact is that the key to a successful conclusion and outcome is the realisation that both parties need each other.

So, the smaller the number of issues to negotiate, the fewer the shared interests and the harder it is to find value in the negotiations.

Once interests are shared, what objectives and strategy can be considered? These could be anything from the target ideal outcome to the best alternative to a negotiated settlement, to a walk away point.

This is all great theory of course and maybe a simple enough process (after all it’s just a big important negotiation) until you factor-in culture to the mix.

All the negotiating parties bring their cultures to the negotiating table and this can have a significant impact on negotiations.

For example, culture influences our view of hierarchy and power, how we consider group versus individual dynamics, how we make decisions (consensual or top down), our basic bias towards universalism or particularism, our flexibility or rigidity, the level of comfort with ambiguity, and how trust is developed.

Culture permeates our communications – low context (task focused), high context (relationship focused) - and influences the way we communicate and exchange information and deal with conflict, as individuals, as a group and within a hierarchy.

The cultural challenges to overcome include our bias and taboos, which is essential if we are to create empathy, openness and trust, and is supported by our cultural levels of patience (our perception of time), our levels of tolerance, and even sense of humour (the UK culture places a high value on humour).

Here are some building blocks for any cross-cultural negotiator to consider:

1.    First, anticipate differences in strategy and tactics that may cause misunderstandings; 
2.    analyse Analyse cultural differences to identify differences in values; 
3.    recognise Recognise that the other party may not share your view of what constitutes power;
4.     avoid Avoid attribution errors; 
5.    find Find out how to show respect in the other culture; 
6.    find Find out how time is perceived in the other culture; 
7.    know Know your options for change; find out what ‘yes’ actually means (or you may get a nasty surprise).

The art and rules of cross-cultural negotiation apply even in the most complex negotiations.

Learn more from our Negotiation Skills expert, Professor Malcolm Smith of the MBA in Dubai of the University of Manchester.