In the previous blog I highlighted the potential sources of friction when negotiating across cultural boundaries. Differences in expectations and in conception of trust make these negotiations difficult. The problems are compounded by different approaches to problem solving and dealing with the bureaucracy. How can international negotiators surmount these potential obstacles? I devote this blog to addressing this issue.

Negotiation even in the best of circumstances can be difficult if the parties are very far apart and/or have very different conceptions as to what an acceptable agreement might be. Cultural differences add another layer of complexity to negotiations and are often a fertile ground for misunderstandings, miscommunication, and/or conflict. If not addressed in a timely and collaborative manner it may be difficult to achieve a positive outcome. How can negotiators then reconcile the task complexity with the cultural complexity to achieve a positive outcome? It is to this that I now turn my attention.

Expect the unexpected

Negotiations is in many ways an expectations game. We have at the beginning of negotiations an expectation as to how the negotiation will proceed and what the parameters of an acceptable deal are. When negotiating across cultural boundaries negotiators must recognize that the negotiating process will not necessarily conform to what we are comfortable with or what we might expect it to be. Anticipatory preparation will lessen the frustration and/or anxiety when unexpected blockages occur. We will respond in a balanced and a calm manner instead of being at the mercy of our emotions. Emotional outbursts at the negotiating table may cause loss of face, interpersonal friction, and may sow the seeds of distrust between the parties. We should make an allowance for the emergence of discrepancies even when we think we understand the other culture well.

Demonstrate resilience

Negotiating an agreement does not necessarily proceed in a linear way. There will be progress followed by setbacks and this may lead to failure or a shift back to the negotiating trajectory. In a cross-cultural context, the ambiguity gets exacerbated due to cultural barriers. It may not be evident to one or all of the parties as to why the negotiating process has hit an impasse and/or what can be done to revive it. Discovering the essence of the underlying problems may take time and it is imperative that the negotiating team recognize it and not act in a manner that may exacerbate rather than resolve the problems. Resilience is also an informational signal in that if the parties continue with the negotiation notwithstanding potential difficulties it conveys their positive intent of being committed to the negotiation.

Be sensitive to cultural differences but do not get blindsided by them

Cultural sensitivity is important in building trust. It conveys to the other party a sense of respect and your willingness to accommodate the other. It is strategically useful inasmuch as it invites the other party to reciprocate but it also may speed up the negotiation process. The point to be made is that while culture is undoubtedly important it can also be used as a strategic tool by the other party to out maneuver you. Your potential partner might talk of the need to build relationships but in actual practice there is no real intent to do that, but the language of that is used to put you on the defensive.  You need to carefully assess the nature of the negotiating situation and assess what is going on. It may be helpful to use an intermediary or a consultant if you are at a loss to figure as to what is happening.

Be flexible without conveying weakness

In all negotiations, be they domestic or cross cultural, demonstrating weakness is problematical as it invites the other party to take advantage of you. No actor would consciously like to demonstrate weakness but sometimes actors do inadvertently. In cross cultural negotiations it is often required that the party or parties demonstrate flexibility. While flexibility is often essential in advancing your agenda, the danger is that it might also convey an aura of weakness. How can an actor avoid conveying this weakness?  If there is a clear understanding of the essential parameters of the negotiation i.e., agenda, the location, the actors involved, a well articulated understanding of what is at stake than the danger from the flexibility may be lessened. Put differently, even before beginning negotiation, it is useful to sketch out the broad parameters of the negotiation.

Learning to cope with the bureaucracy

Bureaucracy and bureaucrats are often rigid. They need to follow their standard operating procedures which makes it difficult for them to demonstrate any kind of flexibility even if it makes eminent sense for them to do so.  The efficiency and the effectiveness of the bureaucracy varies across countries but notwithstanding these differences bureaucratic structures tend to be rigid and constraining. In some instances, the bureaucratic agencies may be engaged in fighting among themselves and/or may not even be fully cognizant of the implications of the rules that they are enforcing. How is the foreign investor to then negotiate the regulatory landscape with the bureaucracy? One way is to look at any opportunities that are created by inconsistent or unclear rules. In other instances, look around for ways in which you can meet the bureaucratic requirements but still achieve your objectives. Finally, you may wish to lobby the bureaucracy although this may take time and success is not guaranteed.

Negotiating across cultural boundaries will test your negotiating skills in a manner that you may not have been used to when negotiating within the confines of your culture. In this blog I have highlighted some strategies that may allow you to survive and prosper.