International negotiation skills

By Peter Muijres

Negotiation is a give-and-take decision-making process involving interdependent parties with different preferences and interests. Negotiations may take place during a sales process, between a therapist and a patient, between business partners, and even between what your heart wants and your head says. Feelings like to undermine effective negotiation and patience and persistence may improve it, making your children at times more successful negotiators than your spouse. Communication is key in negotiation and intercultural communication differences may complicate an international negotiation process.

Key features of negotiation are that each party has certain expectations regarding the outcome of the negotiation process and is willing to modify their position. Negotiation may be used to reach an agreement or compromise, ‘beat’ the opposition, make a point, or settle an argument. Negotiation styles tend to vary between cultures with masculine cultures inclined towards beating the opposition and Nordic and Scandinavian cultures towards agreement and compromise. People generally enter a negotiation process more easily than they think they do or like to admit.

There are two types of negotiation. ‘Distributive negotiation’ is about getting the biggest share of the pie at the expense of others. The drive to beat others in negotiation is fuelled by the drive/incentive and perhaps by  the threat system too and  is likely  to provoke feelings of competition, anger or distrust in the other party. (Read post240715: ‘the compassionate mind’ for more information).  ‘Integrative negotiation’ is concerned with creating a win-win situation. This is done during a process where the parties cooperate to maximise value in order to best serve the interests of all. A win–win negotiation demands more creativity, flexibility and relies on a trusting relationship more, than distributive negotiation does.

Although, a win-win negotiation benefits all, it should not be taken as a sign of weakness and an invitation to push you over. Greed, fear, ignorance and impatience may cause one party to loose confidence and suddenly turn to a win-loose compromise. The prisoner’s dilemma, known in game theory, explains why individuals do not cooperate, even when it is in their best interests.

The risks in international business explain why in many countries in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, a good relationship is a condition prior to entering a negotiation process. Until a trusting personal relationship has grown between the different parties, no business is going to happen between the companies they represent. This also means that when there is no such thing as speeding up the negotiation or simply sending another person to represent the company. A new negotiator would have to invest in a good relationship all over again.

A proper understanding and appreciation of cultural nuances help to improve the relationship by adapting your communication and negotiation strategy. The cultural nuances include:

  1. Language and non-verbal behaviour
  2. Values
  3. Thinking and decision making processes

Failure to prepare for cultural differences will weigh down on a negotiation process that is already challenging by itself. Stress may push negotiators back into their initial negotiation and cultural default positions and dramatically increase the risk of getting stuck.

A handful of guidelines may help you to attend to the cultural nuances and keep the negotiation process ‘unstuck’: flowing and fruitful.

  1. Thinking in terms of ‘interests’, rather than ‘positions’. Don’t let rejection push you into a ‘position’ modus.
    1. If your proposals are rejected by them, don’t start justifying and defending them.
    2. If you can’t accept their proposals, then don’t just bluntly reject them. Think about possible interests involved and ask them why your proposals won’t work for them and what exactly makes their proposal valuable to them. Use that information for your next move.
  2. Common interests first. Common interests strengthen the relational basis that helps to overcome conflicting interests at a later stage together.
  3. Use time to our advantage. Although decisive action is recommended once an opportunity window has opened, windows tend to open differently around the world. Allowing yourself or the other party an occasional time-out may help to make you look more reliable, considerate and committed. It may further signal your confidence in the sound judgement of the other party or it may actually buy you some time to collect any additional information you might need. Quick, American style judgement and decision making is not a ‘natural’ display of intelligence, enthusiasm and confidence everywhere.
  4. Power play. Each party has real and attributed power. Experienced negotiators may try to influence your decision by making you believe they are holding more power than they actually do. However, the opposite may happen too. Britons display a tendency to understatement and self-deprecation, however impressive their achievements may be. Cultural norms about the display of real power vary considerately.
  5. Communication is key. Negotiation is communication (and communication is culture). Experienced negotiators are not the typical extraverts, but keen observers and listeners busy with interpreting behaviour and collecting information to their advantage. Digging into Watzlawick’s five axioms of communication, described in post301214, will help you come to terms with communication. A future blogpost will explain the interpretation of body language in more detail..

Thus, collecting information and preparation is key to effective communication, before and during any negotiation process and particularly the international ones. Determining goals, pitfalls and conditions is one; determining your communication and negotiation strategy is another part of proper preparation. Select a knowledgeable and appropriate negotiation team, discuss in advance who is going to do what at the negotiation table and when, prepare your team and adapt the negotiation setting for the cultural differences in etiquette, body language, verbal communication and decision making styles; and make sure to complete the follow up procedures and practices to maximise your chances of eventual pay-off. 

Culture Class  provides training in personal effectiveness, culture and communication skills. 


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Culture Class is a different class: people like you and me who are enjoy expanding their transnational comfort zone by learning about people, culture and nature. We aim to take useful insights and knowhow out of their academic and clinical boxes and make them available to benefit of people working and living together in everyday life.

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