By Professor Catherine Tinsley and Teaching Professor Rebecca Heino

Negotiation has always been a nuanced business, but the subtleties of this art are more important than ever in today’s global business environment.

Modern organizations employ people from multiple cultures and have relationships with companies around the world, so negotiating across cultural boundaries is common. So are the stereotypes we all hold, which can make it difficult for negotiating parties to understand each other and reach mutually beneficial deals. It is useful to understand why and how negotiators typically stereotype — and how to keep those stereotypes in check. Our research (sponsored in part through Army Research Office grant W911NF-08-1-0301) has focused on these questions and can offer guidance to negotiators involved in intercultural interactions.

Why Do Negotiators Stereotype?
Negotiations are marked with uncertainty about the motives, interests, positions, and alternatives of the other party, as well as uncertainty about the situation itself. People are generally averse to uncertainty and search for information to reduce it.
They do this in part by turning to stereotypes. Walter Lippmann, credited with coining the modern usage of the word “stereotype,” called stereotypes “pictures in our heads” about a situation or another person. They are mental models that contain our knowledge, beliefs, and expectations. When stereotypes are activated, people are subconsciously drawing on past knowledge to fill in information gaps. Although these stereotypes may not be completely accurate, negotiators feel they have reduced their uncertainty. Stereotype activation is a natural process for making us feel better about a current uncertain situation.

How Do Negotiators Stereotype?
Negotiators seem to rely on two general stereotypes. When imagining what each party wants, they tend to use their own cultural values and assume the other party wants the same things they do — whether it is better monetary outcomes, building the relationship, or maximizing gains. In our research on Middle Eastern and U.S. negotiators, we found a party’s role mattered, too; a buyer or seller from one culture would assume a buyer or seller from another culture would want the same outcomes. On the other hand, when imagining each party’s strategies or arguments, negotiators rely on their stereotypes of the other party’s culture. Indeed, people assume there are many more differences in negotiation behaviors and tactics than there really are, and they often mistakenly adjust their strategies accordingly.

So, negotiators assume the other party will want exactly what they do, but will use different strategies to get it. These assumptions present obstacles to deal making. First, having different goals and priorities often produces the best joint outcomes, as parties can make trades to get what they most desire. When people fail to recognize these differences, they miss an opportunity for creative compromise.

Second, assuming differences in tactics and adjusting your approach accordingly can lead to misunderstanding and can even inadvertently offend the other party. For example, an American negotiating in Kuwait had heard that Middle Easterners start negotiations slowly. He was told they like to take their time, drink tea, and talk about each other’s families before beginning substantive discussion. So, the American began by asking several questions about his counterpart’s wife. The Kuwaiti’s replies became shorter and more curt until the American finally realized he had been making his counterpart more, rather than less, uncomfortable by forcing a conversation about his wife with a stranger. Fortunately, the American was attuned to the nonverbal signals and quickly switched topics. It bears remembering that in the dance of negotiations, it is dangerous to assume your partner is going to tango and not want to waltz instead.

What Can Negotiators Do About It?
Advising negotiators to avoid stereotypes is as useful as telling them not to breathe; stereotype activation is not a consciously controlled process.

However, negotiators can examine and question the stereotypes they hold. First, they can consider whether the other party might have different goals based on his or her culture. Second, negotiators can openly discuss perceived negotiation tactics with each other to ensure all communications will be understood.
Certain statements, questions, and feedback can help: I think we are talking about both of our interests …  What I heard you say was … Do you mean you want … ?
By investing a bit more time and resources before a negotiation and using clarifying statements during one, intercultural interaction can prove mutually beneficial.

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