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WHEN IN ROME…The Challenges of Intercultural Negotiation

Perceptions are always subjective in negotiation, as we all see the world differently.  This is all the more true when we are dealing with other cultures.  How to handle that?

I have always shied away from this topic as it tends to lead to gross generalizations made in a somewhat unprofessional way.  In a situation that the Germans call “Stammtisch”, we make blanket statements about “all Americans”, “all Chinese”, “all women”, all accountants”.  Surely there is an approach to this that is more empirically robust and intellectually defensible.

The first thing is to recognize that this is not only about nations.  As intimated in the last paragraph, gender is a culture.  Age group is a culture.  Profession is a culture.  Any group that has shared norms of behavior is a culture.  And since we all are members of multiple cultures at the same time (I am an aging German/American male in the consulting business) it gets fairly complicated fairly quickly.

Certainly we can say some things in general about culture in negotiation.   I would contend that most of the basic precepts I teach in seminars are universally true.  It is always better to get to the level of interests rather than positions.  Alternatives always give power.  Empathy and questions are valuable skills and always trump arguments.  You should always know what you want.

What does vary culturally is the way we implement these precepts.  Most of the differences here come out of  the tension between content and relationship (cultures vary significantly in the weight they put on each), the perception of time and certainly the way we ask questions., to name just a few.

I have recently run into two analytical models that help to shed light on this.  The first is Erin Meyer’s “culture map.” Building on Hofstede’s classic work, Meyer works with  eight classic dimensions of culture, arraying (unfortunately only) nations along a continuum for each.  As she focuses on the business context (persuading, giving feedback, making decisions) it really is quite helpful and impressively nuanced and practical.

Also helpful is George Simon’s cultural detective.   While I cannot really recommend subscribing to this due to a rather user-unfriendly website and truly exorbitant licensing fees, the model is interesting because it defines culture more widely, beyond nations, is built on some significant empirical research and argues that at its core it is about shared values.  Understand those and how they can collide, and you will know what to do.

That is an approach just up my alley.  I have always said values are at least as important as interests in negotiation.  And while interests are largely universal, values are certainly not.  And therein lies the challenge.


Comments welcome!