Emotions and International Negotiations

When negotiating across borders, it is important to not only get your facts right but to consider yours and your counterpart’s feelings, emotions as well as your and their cultural background. These can be “messaged” in many ways, verbally and non-verbally.

It is essential to realize that there are huge differences in the signals that people from different cultures send each other, and equally huge differences in how these signals are “read” or “misread” by others. In the process of negotiating, these differences may cause misunderstandings and conflicts. Sometimes, they can even damage trust and thus destroy the negotiations, as is evidenced with painful clarity in the prolonged Euro crisis pitting the highly expressive, relationship-oriented Greeks against the reserved, task-focused Germans.

Relationship-oriented people such as Southern Europeans, Latinos, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners, Slavs, etc., show their emotions by using their body language, eyes, facial expressions and tone of voice. The more important something is, the more dramatically they express it. As a Russian businessman explained to me, “Forget about what I say and the actual words I use – I’m just trying to show you how I feel about the situation. So if I say, ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ it only means ‘Listen to what I’m saying, because this is really, really important to me.’ That’s all.” In other words, what he says is not really what he means. But what he shows is of the greatest significance.

Task-oriented people – classically German-speakers, Scandinavians, etc. -- tend to have reserved feelings and usually dislike showing their emotions at work. When they signal that something is important, it is the actual words they use -- precise and carefully chosen -- that count most. A Swiss-German executive told me, “I select my words after slow deliberation. What I say is exactly what I mean or I say nothing. I don’t need body language.”

When the two sides meet in a negotiation, the potential for confusion and distrust abounds. A relationship-oriented negotiator, who uses her/his entire physical and vocal tools to express her/his feelings, may be read as hysterical and unreliable by a task-oriented counterpart. Conversely, the relationship-oriented person might very well interpret a task-oriented negotiator as a cold, unfeeling robot whose pointed words cut like a knife. Without mutual understanding of the two approaches, it can be a highly frustrating and painful experience for the two sides to communicate with each other effectively, or even find an agreement.

Negotiations are intense interactions between individuals with multi-layered agendas and desires. Despite books and seminars teaching business people to become cool, rational win-win negotiators focused on mutual interests while separating people from issues, our emotions nevertheless affect us physically, psychologically and behaviorally.

Physically, emotions expressed in the concentrated atmosphere of cross-cultural negotiations can pump us full of positive energy or exhaust that energy, depending on how we broadcast and receive emotional messages. Similarly, emotions can impact us psychologically if we feel confronted or attacked by an expressive negotiator who paces back and forth, throwing his arms about and raising his voice. Conversely, a “cold” negotiator from a task-oriented culture may “hurt” a counterpart by sharply chiseled words and an apparent lack of interest in building or maintaining a relationship with them. Who wants to cut a deal with someone who “hurts” them?

Behaviorally, showing or reserving emotions affect peoples’ attitude towards expressing criticism or support, empathy or indifference, a focus on facts or on relationships. In all of this, no type is right or wrong, simply different. But it is complicated.

Ironically, task-oriented negotiators, seen as “unemotional” by their relationship-oriented counterparts, often embrace or even relish conflict as it, in their eyes, leads to clarity. Yet most relationship-oriented cultures, such as the Japanese, Indians and the British, will do almost anything to avoid conflict during negotiations, seeing it as disruptive of the harmony which they feel should exist among negotiators. To complicate this vexing situation, relationship-oriented Russians often vigorously counter all proposals to the point of appearing obstinately aggressive, when in reality they are simply bargaining for a better negotiating positing while expecting their counterpart to do the same.

Is there a way out of this conundrum? Yes, through self-reflection and training, expressive negotiators can learn to tone down and turn down their emotional volume; meanwhile reserved communicators can develop their voice and body language skills.

To successfully negotiate internationally, it is essential that we understand our and other’s emotions, and to learn to be consciously aware of and skillfully use our feelings as a communication tool to send the messages we wish to send, and to better understand the signals that we are receiving. The basis of this exchange is mutual respect, understanding, tolerance, flexibility and a healthy sense of humor. This is the best way to experience a satisfying negotiation with your global partner, one in which both sides feel listened to and appreciated, and which results in all parties achieving their mutual goals.

<em>When negotiating across borders, it is important to consider your and your counterpart’s feelings and emotions, and your
When negotiating across borders, it is important to consider your and your counterpart’s feelings and emotions, and your and their cultural background.
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