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Jeff Trueman: Managing cross-cultural negotiations

Jeff Trueman

Jeff Trueman

With growing frequency, lawyers and mediators are working with people from around the world whose communication norms and customs differ from ours in the United States. Among other things, how one builds trust, what is considered “fair,” and how approval and disapproval are expressed vary widely across the globe. Unspoken signals – a rich source of information to the savvy negotiator – assume greater prominence in some cultures, for example.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when negotiating with someone whose cultural orientation of communication differs from yours:

Power distance: How is interpersonal power or influence perceived?

Power distance is the degree to which less powerful members of society expect authority to be distributed unequally. High power distance societies tend to place a premium on authority, obedience, tradition, religion and military force. Negotiations are often seen as zero-sum exchanges. In low power societies, equality is idealized and people are expected to be interdependent.

Clients and lawyers who view the mediator as a person of high power may defer to the mediator or ask for advice. Those who see the mediator as low power may arrive late to the mediation, make demands of the mediator and act rudely. For participants who use first names or participate in group problem-solving (yes, once in a while, it happens), low power distance is apparent.

When assessing the power dynamic, the mediator or negotiator should think about the possible sources of power and who has it, whether the power can shift, and how the process can be designed to address power imbalances so participants are informed and the agreement will be durable. Strategic choices for the negotiator or mediator might include changing the pace of the discussions, caucusing, co-mediation, and reframing issues to rebalance the power dynamic.

Time orientation: Linear or non-linear processing?

Most of us keep track of our time as professionals and consider it a resource that can be saved, spent or lost. When negotiating, some people want to address one issue at a time. They may grow frustrated when others bring up “irrelevant” issues. They may look for commitment at each step of the process.

Other people manage time in a non-linear fashion and are comfortable discussing multiple issues at the same time. They may be reluctant to agree until all of the issues are on the table. They may grow frustrated by those who don’t see “the big picture” as they see it.

Uncertainty and risk: How do they make you feel?

In general, most people want to avoid feeling anxious and uneasy about the future. Cultures are fashioned, in part, to create the illusion that life can be understood or controlled. Laws are created, in part, to inject stability and predictability in human affairs. For many, religion relieves anxieties about unknowable outcomes in this life and beyond.

Still, across cultures, there exists a wide spectrum of tolerance for uncertainty. Those at the low end will want to discuss all of the possible consequences and contingencies to a proposal with enforcement mechanisms built into the agreement. Those at the high end of tolerance, by comparison, will be flexible about the future and will agree to come back to the table if and when a disagreement arises. As the details and contingencies expand, those at the high end of the spectrum are likely to believe the other side is expressing a high degree of mistrust.

In light of our shrinking world, lawyers and mediators should possess some degree of cultural competency – it could mean the difference between impasse or success at the bargaining table. Culture can be a strong influence on a person’s opinions, hopes and perceptions. Uninformed communication across cultures can offend or cause confusion, which can cause damage, deepen conflict and close discussions. In addition to the benefits that competency in cultural communication can bring to others, we understand ourselves more deeply when we are aware of our own cultural beliefs, values and perceptions.

Jeff Trueman is a commercial mediator. He can be contacted at