Negotiating – A Global Challenge

Negotiation is an exchange of different objectives with the goal of finding a common ground for a mutually acceptable compromise; it is something that should be workable for both parties. Anything beyond that is not negotiation, rather a flaunting of might or arrogant forcefulness, a kind of desensitization of respect. Negotiation requires mutual respect not mutual trust. Trust is something that is gained through negotiation not integral to it. Trust comes through negotiation and interaction. If we feel that we should trust our opponent from the beginning then we are being trite.

When talking negotiations, most people from North America would likely consider themselves to be upright in their interactions. This is good, when negotiating amongst ourselves or with those who hold the same core values and ideals as we do. But, in this world not all people hold the same core values and ideals. We can look to the Middle East and conflicts taking place in the world today to realize that not everyone thinks same.

Perhaps we can see a thread of puritan ideals, when trying to realize a world in which everyone should be “good” and at the same time a good that has been dictated by our cultural values. How can we describe “good” in a way that crosses all cultures? I ask this because I was fortunate to live twenty years of my life in a culture that is quite different from that into which I was born, a culture where I learned that “good” can mean something much different than what I was taught as a child.

In “The Art of War“, by the classical Chinese strategist “Sun Zi“, he talks of understanding as a strategy. He said:

Know yourself and know your adversary and you will win one hundred battles,

Know yourself and know not your adversary and you will win fifty battles…

The first half of the challenge here is to understand yourself; what are your core values, your ideas, your desires, and goals. If you are able to achieve this, he said, you will be successful half of the time. The second half of the challenge is to understand your opponent; what are their core values, their ideals, their desires, and goals. This may mean knowing what makes them happy or what makes them sad; being able to understand their interpretation of “good”. If we simply take for granted that they hold the same overall ideals as we do, we may find ourselves heading down a road for failure.

Negotiation is strongly influenced and affected by culture base. This base is built on upbringing; comprised of religious, family, and social ideals. Consider if you grew up in a country on the other side of the earth? Would you not have values and ideals different from those you have here? Therefore your reality would be much different from the environment in which you were raised; you would be a much different person.

People tend to cling to what they know and to what they feel comfortable with, as does anyone who has not learned the second part of Sun Zi’s lesson; learning about success thorough understanding.

While living in China, I had to learn to accept things that were sometimes unacceptable in light of my cultural values and ideals. Later, when I was able to look beyond my own limitations, I began to see opportunities and possibilities that never occurred to me before. This took years, and many a frustrated night contemplating and trying to understand. Eventually, I realized that the problem was me; it was in the way I was thinking. I was thinking the way I was taught to think. However that was not necessarily the way the people I was interacting with were thinking.

Once I began accepting the things that seemed to go against my grain, life began to happen more smoothly. I started to find myself succeeding at what I was trying to do. I found that resistance because of cultural biases to difference, and stubbornness in accepting things that I viewed as objectionable, were causing frustration and failure.

The Chinese like to present gifts to people in order to get things accomplished. At first, in order to achieve my goals, I was faced with having to do this. I felt that I could never follow through. It felt like I was bribing someone. That was something that went against my core values. However, once I got beyond the cultural blockage and was able to accept it as the way things worked within a different culture, the outcomes changed and I didn’t see myself as a bad person because the action didn’t change who I was at the core. It wasn’t easy to transform ideals that were so deeply rooted within my psyche. It took time and patience, but it brought me freedom and success in my daily interactions in a different culture. Adapting to the environment doesn’t mean that we become bad people, it is simply a strategy to become successful in an environment much different from our own.

In your mind, envision yourself at a negotiation table with two Chinese businessmen. You know what you want, you know what you have to offer, and in essence you know yourself. From the beginning you are transparent and honest. You are acting in a way you feel is right. You put everything you have on the table, announcing “This is all I have to offer.”

Suddenly, the Chinese counterparts bring something new to the table, but they had assured you earlier that they had nothing new to offer.

Would you consider them dishonest? Would you see them as lying? But now, stop and ask yourself how they would view you as a negotiator when you are unable to bring anything new to the table. Will they view you as being dishonest? Would you be seen as lying? It seems that we didn’t learn from the wisdom of Sun Zi. We were only aware of our own ways and not the ways of our counterparts. This mixing of cultures, what is acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in the other, is common in cultures that are so different at the core. Only when both have a good understanding of the other will they be successful. So how do we deal with these issues in the global village? How do we maintain peace in a world that is nearing turmoil simply for lack of understanding?

For me, a good global negotiator is someone who has the experience and insight to recognize valid differences in cultural and make corrections or even changes in direction to meet the needs. Even slight differences in upbringing can create barriers when not approached with the right attitude, one of openness. All the more for cultures located on opposite sides of the earth.

A few years ago, I went on a trip to Mexico with my family. My sister had an exchange student staying with her family from Thailand. He was trying to barter with a street vendor for a souvenir. My sister overheard him haggling and became angry. She felt he was pushing the price too low. She steamed away in disagreement. The exchange student was perplexed at this and looked as if to be wondering what he had done wrong. I explained to him that she did not understand how some things worked outside America. She is well adapted to the type of marketing where everything has a set price. Her value-set was dictating to her that you must be fair to the other person. I assured him that he should continue in his bartering and interact with the vendor as if he were in Thailand. Happily he ended up getting the souvenir and at the price both individuals felt was fair.

In China, they have an expression that fits well here, “Frog at the bottom of the well”. This could translate to “Ignorance is bliss”. If we’re not open to learning the ways others view the world we too will simply be living our lives like the frog at the bottom of the well; content to have water and mud all around yet oblivious to the world outside the well.

I was once told when bartering in Beijing “Nobody is in the business of going out of business.” Of course, I didn’t get what I wanted for the price I asked.

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