Get what you want in international negotiations by adapting to local differences


International Negotiations

International NegotiationsSome people really enjoy negotiations. They enjoy detangling the knots of differing motives, values, personalities, needs and goals that each of the parties bring so as to find a (hopefully) mutually agreeable solution.

These individuals are often called diplomats or rainmakers, as they grow the business or help bring understanding where there is none.

Today we all need to be diplomats and rainmakers to thrive in the global marketplace.

To become a skilled negotiator, you need to not only know what your own goal and preferred outcome of the negotiation is, but what your weaknesses and strengths are when interacting with others.

This is instrumental as you stand up for your needs and form a compromise when necessary.

Understanding what motivations and values drive the behavior and goals of your negotiating partner(s) is another important aspect of successful negotiation.

Having an open mind, listening well and being empathetic, while not losing sight of your own goals and values, will help you here.

Breaking down the values that define negotiating styles

Differences in behaviors, values and negotiation style are both cultural and personal. I once worked with a woman from northern Europe who was stationed in Egypt, where she was tasked with collaborating with local businesses and the government.

As a professional with intercultural competence, she knew she had to first research the local culture, communication styles and the view and role of women in the workplace, especially in negotiations.

She also knew that she needed to switch both her behavior and her communication style, to some degree, in order to better interact with the local partners and reach her business objectives.

There are several different experts in intercultural communication and competence and studies that you can consult to learn about a local business partner.

One place to start is to explore the research by Geert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede in their book Cultures and Organizations- Software of the Mind (2005).

Egypt is described as a culture with high levels of accepted inequality (power distance), a stronger trend towards collectivism than individualism, and strong sets of rules and behavioral codes (uncertainty avoidance) when compared to Canada, for example.

You can perform quick country comparisons and also read about the different types of cultural dimensions here.

If we look at communication styles, the Egyptian communication style is described as indirect and high context, as opposed to the more direct and low-context North American communication style. In high context communication, non-verbal communication plays an important role.

Strategize now to save yourself time later

What does all this mean? It means that when you enter negotiations you should understand the cultural background of the other party and make adjustments to your style.  Making persuasive arguments requires knowing your partner or opponent.

Using a very direct communication style, where you get to the point quickly and verbally express what you want, expecting a fast agreement, might not be the best route forward in every situation.

When negotiating in a “high power distance culture” you’ll need to know the status of your counterpart: where in the organizational hierarchy does he or she stand?

Those on the lower rungs will not have the power or authority to make binding agreements. They are the gateway to those with the power to make decisions.

“Younger” women may also encounter added complexities originating from cultural differences in values and attitudes associated with the role of women in society and in business.

In cultures where the role of women in society is strongly associated with their marital status and age, it can be very challenging for a young unmarried woman to earn respect. You will likely need to be accompanied by an older man, perhaps a local, to gain access to the right people and to be considered a serious negotiation partner.

Prepare to be proactive with your negotiating knowledge

But don’t over-adjust and over-accommodate. Cultural differences can also be used as tools in the negotiation process. For example, negotiators from some cultures might stall the process, not want to give a final answer, and use long periods of silence to make you change your mind.

Having a local cultural informant or an experienced cross-cultural negotiator will help you de-code in order to understand when a cultural difference is authentic, or when it is used as a negotiation strategy.

A local cultural informant can also advise you on how to best respond and move your agenda forward.  As someone wise once said, “at this point you just have to demand an answer.”

When you prepare for cross-cultural negotiations:

  1. Set your goals and expectations clearly and know your own communication style, strengths, weaknesses and insecurities. Take some time to analyze and understand your preferred negotiation process.
  2. Study the culture of your partner or opponent; know the values, customs and communication style. Understand the local business culture, hierarchy and the role of gender.
  3. Compare your negotiation process to that of your negotiation partner, looking for similarities and differences. Find ways to develop trust and collaborate.
  4. Get a great local expert or informant. Someone who really knows the culture and who can give accurate and useful advice.
  5. Don’t over-adjust to accommodate cultural differences, or you will lose your negotiation power. Use it to your advantage.

Which areas in your negotiating style do you consider a strength? What area of international negotiations do you most need to improve on? 

 Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Katarina Holm-Didio

Katarina has extensive experience in global HR, cross-cultural training, expatriate spouse support and career consulting and advising. Her areas of expertise are cross-cultural competence, global teams, working and living in the U.S. and the Scandinavian countries; managing transitions and change, job search and career management. Her website is

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