Nothing But Conflicts: Problems in International Negotiation Can’t Be Avoided, But They Can Be Managed

Imagine you representative of a western company want to start a joint venture with a Chinese firm. What is likely to happen, what are the common problems in these cases? Well, the most common problem is that western negotiators are often too impatient. They forget that before they start talking about business, they need to develop a relationship with the Chinese first (guanxi-building). While Westerners are often familiar with the concept, they are often not sure how long it is necessary to talk about non-task related topics.

If they do not provide enough background information about themselves, their Chinese counterparts feel that they haven’t established enough trust yet. The result is that both sides feel uneasy. Without trust, the Chinese will not feel comfortable sharing information about their business. As you can see, the result will be that both parties do not know what they need to know and negotiation is doomed to failure. How can you come to terms without knowing what the other party wants?


So, how can we avoid or overcome cross-cultural conflicts like the one described above?

Nike Carstarphen from the Alliance of Conflict Transformation suggests the following:

  1. You have to prepare the people involved. Ensure that despite different opinions, they focus on common positions at first. In case of negotiation with Chinese, start the negotiation by talking about similarities of your companies, it’s goals, structures etc., but also similarities between the people. Take your time to discuss topics that are not directly related to the merger, and you will find out that you have more in common than one would’ve thought!
  2. Look at the past. Try to figure out when the conflict began and why. Often both parties do not really understand where the conflict came or, if they think about it from the standpoint of their own culture, their assessment is simply wrong. You need to find out what the underlying cultural assumptions of your negotiation partner are by applying strategies for clarification of what is happening. The goal here is to find out what exactly it is that makes them frustrated.
  3. Ask yourself – and your negotiation partner: how could a future together look like? By imagining what you could achieve together, you are automatically bringing yourself back towards discussing commonalities, not differences.
  4. Focus on your relationship instead of the issue at hand. In many cultures, including the Chinese, the relationship is the top-priority. Embrace this. In these cultures many problems can be solved easily as long as the relationship is good. Your negotiation partner will be much more open towards suggestions they previously didn’t acknowledge. If appropriate, forget about business for a moment and go for an informal dinner!
  5. Reflect, reflect, reflect. Step back from everything and take your time to think about what might have gone wrong. If the situation overwhelms you and you have no idea what is going wrong, do research. Learn from other people’s experiences with the culture. In our scenario: read about Chinese negotiation style, talk with China-experts, or hire a cross-cultural consultant. A moment of quiet reflection can work wonders when you are stuck and don’t know what to do.

Last but not least I encourage you guys to share your experiences with us. What kind of cross-cultural conflict did you encounter? Did you understand what the problem was? What steps did you take to overcome the problem?



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