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International Relations: How to Successfully Negotiate with Other Cultures

March 21, 2011

In a typical negotiation, a certain degree of stress is unavoidable. Negotiations are often fast-paced, demanding, challenging, and mentally exhausting. Imagine if, on top of these incredibly stressful conditions, you also had to worry about how to properly and adequately negotiate with delegates from a culture different from your own. In international negotiations you will be confronted with a foreign language, environment, and culture. The other party has different frames of reference, experience, values, and signals than those that you are accustomed to.

 The process that governs the negotiation between two people from different cultures is not terribly different from the process that governs negotiations internally in the United States. Within the given negotiation room and the common framework, you must find a satisfactory solution that meets both your material and psychological needs. In order to successfully negotiate with delegates from other cultures, you must stay focused on the task at hand and:

 ●      Be aware that you are the foreigner.

●      Be wary of generalization.

●      Be mindful of your attire.

●      Be aware of the cultural relationship between men and women.

●      Increase your understanding of foreign cultures.

While the first step may seem terribly obvious, sometimes even the most skillful negotiators overlook it. Keep in mind that when you are negotiating in another country, the delegates from the foreign country are not foreign at all—you are. Thus, it is essential to abandon any preconceived notions and to be open to the culture’s customs, however unfamiliar they may be.

 The skillful foreign negotiator never makes generalizations. What is true for one segment of a foreign population may not necessarily be true for all of the population.  Be open and curious vis-à-vis alien cultures and never make do with simply learning a few facts and applying them to an entire population. Ask around among your business contacts, hotel staff, and other foreign visitors if you need clarification about a particular foreign tradition or custom.

 As any successful negotiator is aware, your attire sends a message to your colleagues. As a result, it is of the utmost importance to be aware of the message your clothes are sending, and to choose them accordingly. However, when you are negotiating in a foreign country, sometimes the same standards of dress do not apply. If you want the other party to listen to you and try to understand your message, you must behave in a manner that inspires confidence. If you depart from the acceptable dress code, you run the risk of having the other party misunderstand your message. Be sure to investigate a country’s business dress code before your arrival, and pack accordingly. One of the most foolish ways to threaten the success of a negotiation is to dress improperly or in a way that may insult the other party.

 A key component of any negotiation is the successful interaction between the two parties. Personal chemistry and good conversation are two tools that are instrumental in governing successful deals. Despite this, it is essential to keep in mind that not all cultures operate under the same social norms. Interactions between males and females in the United States are radically different from those in other countries. In some cultures, it is considered an infringement of social etiquette to shake a woman’s hand, appoint her the head of your negotiation delegation, or invite her (without her husband) to a restaurant to discuss business. It is essential to familiarize yourself with such customs before beginning the negotiation, so as to avoid offending the other party and jeopardizing the deal.

 Finally, in order to be a truly successful foreign negotiator, you must increase your understanding of foreign cultures. In order to better understand a foreign culture and to become aware of your own prejudices, you should read everything you come across that pertains to the foreign country you’re about to visit. Books are an extremely useful resource—read everything from slender pamphlets to extensive tomes. You can also read fiction describing foreign cultures. Peruse some newspapers and weeklies, or read their trade journals. Familiarizing yourself with the country’s customs before you depart allows you to focus all of your time and attention on the negotiation when you arrive.

 Ultimately, it is inevitable that you will run into minor difficulties while negotiating abroad—after all, conflict is part of the negotiation process. However, if you familiarize yourself with the aforementioned steps and make an honest attempt to learn about the other culture, you will be able to eliminate time wasted acclimating yourself with the country’s customs, and instead be able to let your negotiation skills shine.

 This post is excerpted from Keld Jensen’s upcoming book Power Bargaining: Adding Value to Commercial Negotiations to be published mid 2011.

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