Managers embedded in different national cultures operate on the basis of different assumptions. These assumptions are tacitly held and many may not even be consciously aware of them. In some respects, assumptions can become a source of hidden bias as they color our perception of what is going on in the negotiation or what should be going on. Assumptions constrain our perception of reality, and we may not even be aware of it. In this blog, I will outline some potential consequences of our failure to recalibrate our assumptions in a cross-cultural context and how some of these errors might be avoided or minimized.

When managers negotiate across cultures they must come to terms with the fact that the assumptions which worked well for them in their own cultural context may have little or no validity in a different setting. For example, in a Western cultural context negotiation is often viewed as a task-oriented and a problem-solving activity that needs to be accomplished in a time-sensitive manner. In an Asian cultural context negotiation is more of a tool for relationship building and once that is accomplished it may be easier to reach an agreement. Yet, the timelines for this often remain unclear. How long will it take to build a relationship/trust? At what point can we be certain that we have built resilient trust?

There is an inbuilt ambiguity in the negotiation process which gets magnified when we lack awareness about our assumptions and that of our counterparts. Assumptions around time, communication, contracts, risk, and return, can all create potential sources of conflict if we have not re-calibrated our assumptions. Conflicting assumptions can create relational disharmony, finger-pointing, a sense of confusion, and/or erroneous perceptions that may prevent the negotiators from accomplishing their goals. I wish to point out that recalibration does not necessarily involve working with all of the counterpart’s assumptions. There are some that you may never be comfortable with and there is no reason why you should. That said, recalibration is still essential to develop a working consensus.

How can we recalibrate our assumptions? Negotiators often assume that their approach to negotiation is indeed universal. The first thing is to recognize that this approach is unique to our cultural context and may not work elsewhere. How does one come to this recognition? If you are negotiating in a culture where you have never negotiated before preparation is essential. As you familiarize yourself with the culture and the historical context you will begin to recognize the subtle, and the not so subtle, differences between what you are accustomed to and the norm in the other culture. If feasible, speak to practitioners who have negotiated in that culture and get insights into what works and what does not and why.

This is an essential first step but by no means sufficient. Once you have a general sense of how things operate in that culture you must learn how to open yourself to how that culture works. Knowledge is important but insufficient. It necessitates the need for emotional openness i.e., a willingness and an acceptance of how the negotiation process might evolve without any prejudgment or preconditions. Emotional openness is akin to expansion where you are receptive to new approaches. This will allow you to cope with ambiguity that much better and will also help you to bond with your counterpart. Without emotional connection progress in the negotiation will be difficult. Once established, emotional connection can help you glean information from your partner that may otherwise have been difficult. It is also useful in building trust.

How does one go about building emotional openness? A good starting point is to become comfortable with who you are as a negotiator. You need to feel secure in your role. Cultural distance may potentially lessen that security but you need to rise above that. Once you feel secure you can make yourself more vulnerable and as you do that you may be in the process of expansion rather than contraction. As you become comfortable with a group of negotiators from one culture you should be able to translate this to other cultural contexts as well. I should point out that this is a process that takes time and will definitely not happen overnight. You can expect to see potential benefits emerging over the longer term.