KNOW HOW

The Fine Art of Negotiating in Different Cultures

Don't let cultural folkways get in the way of a big business negotiation. Here are three tips to be more sensitive local mores.
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When it comes to overseas business negotiations, much can get lost in translation. 

A team of three U.S. business school professors studied the differences between how North Americans and Asians settle conflict and negotiate--and if you plan to expand globally you may want to listen.

Jeanne Brett, professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Kristin Behfar, an associate professor at the Darden School of Business at University of Virginia, and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, say that both Westerners and Easterners need be aware of their inherent differences in business communication.

"In much of the West, it is considered maddeningly inefficient to talk around an issue, whereas East Asians tend to view direct confrontation as immature and unnecessary. That difference amounts to a frustrating cultural divide in how people solve problems at work," the team wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

Through their research, Brett, Behfar, and Sanchez-Burks created a basic list of the standard idiosyncrasies between the East and West. Below, read how you can become better attuned to cultural folkways of negotiating.

Listen for cues.

"Look for subtext. If you suddenly realize you're listening to a story or a metaphor, that's a signal," the team writes. In Eastern cultures, subtle phrases or suggestions are more effective than Westerners' directness. Brett, Behfar, and Sanchez-Burks tell of an American entrepreneur who contracted a Chinese manufacturer to build bikes and send them to his buyer in Germany. When he went to check on the bikes before being shipped, he noticed they rattled. Instead of directly saying they need to be fixed, he asked the plant manager to go on a test ride with him. During the ride, he mentioned that they rattled. The plant manager understood and fixed the bikes. "The plant manager apparently picked up on the entrepreneur's culturally sensitive cues and assumed ownership of the problem, because the German buyer received a satisfactory shipment of bikes," they write.

Tone down blunt solutions.

When a problem arises that needs to be fixed, be oblique, the team says. "Suggest a tentative solution. Express it as a question--'Could this be done?'--and not as a given," they write. "Listen for 'that might be difficult' or a noncommittal 'yes,' which may really mean 'no' and certainly suggests that your approach isn't optimal."

Have a third party settle conflict.

In Asia, it is customary to respect social hierarchies. If a conflict arises, a top executive may be used to settle a problem. "Don't be put off by third-party intervention," the trio writes. "Understand that by not confronting you directly, your East Asian colleague is treating you with respect, even while disagreeing with your approach."

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Dec 6, 2013

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a reporter at Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and politics at Patch.com, and his work has been published in Tablet Magazine and The Brooklyn Paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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