Conflict and dispute resolution in cross cultural negotiations

Several open colorful umbrellas from the top view

When negotiating with cross-cultural differences how should you proceed with negotiations? These types of negotiations can be particularly challenging. There is  a lot of room for making errors that are unforeseen.  Personally, whether a negotiation or in a mediation, I prefer to bring on board additional expertise. That is someone that can relate much better to the situation and someone that has the expertise to see things that I may never pick up on given my own experiences and internal biases.  For example, in mediation, often a co-mediator of the opposite sex and the other culture depending on the culture makes a huge difference from my own experiences.


A tight versus a loose culture


What does this mean?  In an article in the Harvard Business Review the staff authors quote Michele Gelfand from the University of Maryland with her book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.  She points the “invisible glue” that ties cultures together categorizing for example Japan, India, and Turkey as tight with many rules and the United States, Brazil, and the Netherlands as loose with varying levels of tight-loose in Asia, Middle Eastern, Nordic, and Germanic cultures and with English-speaking, Latin, and Eastern European cultures often looser.

She points out that your negotiating style, thoughts, and behaviors all need to consider your own and their perspective. Think about elements relating to punctuality, following the rules, open to new ideas, outsiders, change, and risk.  You can consider this within the U.S. as well. She categorizes Alabama and Montana as tight, California and New York as loose, and Minnesota and Delaware as somewhere in between. There can be differences within professions too with creative fields such as entrepreneurs and artists, compared with manufacturing and banking. Those viewing their financial world with more threats such as the working class may view the world more tightly than those that can weather financial risk such as the upper class that can afford to lose and be looser. 

Given differences in nations, geography, professions, and class what should you be considering in order to understand and  bridge differences?


Key elements to consider


To have better results the first element to consider is determine what it is you don’t know.  Knowing that you don’t know and being open to understanding is your first step. What can you do to improve your own cultural intelligence?  Next go beyond stereotyping  and develop a relationship with the other party. Finally, demonstrate your willingness to understand and adapt to their culture. Let’s take a look at each of these elements.

Expand your understanding

Do your homework. Do some research. What do you know about the other culture considering differences noted above regarding nations, geography, professions, class, and other areas that may have significance in the negotiation?  Start out with an internet search on the topic, explore articles and read books to gain additional insight. Network with others. What have been their experiences and what might they share with you in general? 

The more you know the better equipped you will be to interact with the other culture.

Where might you find areas of agreement to build trust? For example, with children, grandchildren, education, hobbies, sports, punctuality, and values? Where may you have differences, blind spots, or areas that may cause concern? For example, gender or age bias, cultural awareness, lack of empathy, censorship, openness, authoritarian or inclusive leadership and other areas. Until you begin to ask these questions, you simply do not know. You may be viewed as unorganized, too trusting, too informal, and too quick to rush to a decision and move on. Keep in mind how the other party maybe viewing you given your culture.

Look beyond stereotypes

So far, the focus has been on generalities.  However, we are all simply people too. You need to think beyond the stereotypes and consider the individual(s) involved and their role in the firm and in their society. We all want to be respected, treated with dignity, and be listened to by the other side.

Explore the individual’s history with where they are from (what region), their home town, their profession, their experience in their profession, family, hobbies, interests, and other areas you can find in common.

 Developing an authentic, connecting relationship can go a long way towards a much better negotiation. Taking the time to determine how broadly the other party is to consider various alternatives beyond the general stereotype you may have may prove very helpful.  Keep an open mind and be alert to clues from their culture that may help you.

Expand your perspective to adapt to their culture

Take this even further. The other culture has a perspective of you too. Can you demonstrate respect, patience, understanding, kindness, consideration, competence, calmness,  and confidence? Can you do this without intimidation, arrogance, dismissiveness, impatience, too much informality, offering too many ideas that make you look disorganized, or overly trusting by providing too much information too early in the negotiation? This is a lot to think about.

How will you adapt your negotiation style considering the other culture is critical.  Think about and plan these elements ahead of time.

How will you ensure that you come across well as a serious and yet culturally sensitive counterpart? As Americans we typically come across as impatient, too quick to push for closure and we do not give enough time to building a good working relationship. Gelfand’s research found that more impatient American negotiators fared far worse financially. Those that were able to adapt to their counterpart’s slower pace and social norms in tighter cultures built stronger relationships and had better results.

Personal experiences bring this home

My own experiences acting as a mediator with transfer pricing issues when positions were entrenched between U.S Treasury representatives and with those involving multiple cultures associated with work in various countries around the world verified the commentary above. 

By taking the time to learn about the other party,

 their culture, their interests, and working to connect at a personal level with the parties, trust could be formed that would allow for a much better understanding and outcome for the parties. This could not be rushed. This had to be nurtured. If one party (typically U.S.) pushed for closure to quickly it was practically guaranteed to have no agreement at the lowest level.  If the parties were patient and took the time to be culturally sensitive, it was often possible to develop a good working relationship into a successful negotiated solution.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]