International negotiation skills: Stepping into the other side's shoes

It can be challenging enough to negotiate with people who are ‘like us’, people who share our view of the world, work in the same way and speak the same language.  When we negotiate with people from other backgrounds and cultures we should remember that they may not have the same expectations or understanding of negotiation and they might not communicate in the same way that we do.  For a negotiation to be successful we need to ensure not only that our proposal is attractive but also that we present our message in a way that is appealing to the ‘other side’. We need to get inside their head or step into their shoes to see the negotiation from their perspective.  Having the right language tools at our disposal can help us to craft a message that resonates with the other side and makes them more responsive to our proposal.

Achieve goals or avoid problems

Some people are more likely to buy something when they can see how it is going to help them to reach their goals and create a positive outcome.  For others it is more important to know that their purchase will help them to solve problems and remove difficulties.  If you don’t talk about potential problems and obstacles with people who have an ‘avoid’ motivation you may well lose their trust as they are likely to think that your offer is too good to be true. 

If you have not met your negotiation partners before it may be hard to know what their motivation direction is but by asking the right questions early on you can usually sense if they are motivated more by achieving or avoiding.  You can then adapt your language according and use words like attain, include, maximise with people who are motivated by achievement and words like solve, prevent, mitigate, eliminate with those more motivated by avoiding problems.  If you are really not sure or are negotiating with a group it’s best to use a healthy mix of both.

Keep your message simple

Our attention is necessarily selective and as result we delete a lot of information that comes our way.  When we are negotiating it is important to keep our message clear and on topic; use silence to allow your counterpart to absorb what you have said and summarise key points before moving on.  Also bear in mind that we are more likely to delete information that is not in line with our values or world view.  So particularly if you are negotiating across cultures, make sure that you have thought about what is important to the other side and that your examples and references are relevant to their culture and context.

Be specific

A vague message increases the chances of our being misunderstood or of our words becoming distorted in the mind of the other side.  Be careful when using terms like close of business, promptly or in a year’s time as these can all be misinterpreted and cause frustration further down the line, particularly across cultures. Define your terms carefully and use specific, unambiguous language.

Never assume

It is always dangerous to assume that others see the world, or a specific situation, in the same way as we do.  And never more so than when we are conducting international negotiations. Make sure you separate your assumptions from concrete facts and ask questions to validate your assumptions.  If, for example, you have assumed that price is the most important consideration for the other side or that they are only interested in buying your services for their head office location, you risk limiting the scope of your potential deal. 

Equally, remember that the other side will have made assumptions about you and will draw conclusions from your message based on their previous experiences and view of the world.  If you appear hurried and decline an offer of lunch in a part of the world where time is fluid and personal relationships are important, your counterpart may make the assumption that you are not that interested in doing business with them.

Taking the time to consider what is important to the other side and respond empathetically to their needs and motivations is a key factor in successful negotiations. If you try on the other shoes you might find they fit quite nicely!

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