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Where can cross-cultural communication skills be particularly important? – Negotiation and conflict 

Published on March 9th, 2022

This blog is the second part of the series on cross-cultural communication where we’re answering the question – where are cross-cultural communication skills particularly important? 

Negotiation and cross-cultural communication skills

Negotiation is a specific communication situation that can be quite complex even when we’re negotiating with people from our own culture. It includes persuasion, making promises and creatively solving problems. When we include cross-cultural differences, the whole process becomes even more complicated.  

Task-oriented cultures are mostly interested in their current goal – to make a good deal and to do it as soon as possible. Relationship-oriented cultures believe that good relationships are what makes a job well done. They prefer to invest time getting to know the other person and creating a closer relationship. For people who are from task-oriented cultures, this can seem like a waste of time or even having a hidden agenda.   

In addition, cultures differ in the way they approach persuasion during negotiations. A negotiator from an individualist culture is often very competitive and will show disagreement openly. On the other hand, someone from China, a traditionally group-oriented culture, may be more restrained. They will put interpersonal relationships at the forefront and avoid open conflicts to save face. 

Culture will also influence the willingness of negotiators to make concessions. In Russia, making any concessions would be seen as falling behind and showing weakness. While in some other cultures, particularly in parts of the Middle East, making concessions is part of the process and something that leads to a better agreement. 

Successfully negotiating across cultures requires highly developed cultural intelligence and cross-cultural communication skills: agility, being familiar with predominant values of that culture and potential differences in styles of communication. Cross-cultural communication skills allow you to be aware of your communication style and to focus your attention not only on what the other person is saying, but also on the way they are saying it in order to better understand the message that is being sent.  

Conflict of opinions

While some cultures see conflict as nothing more than a good brainstorming session or a sign of commitment to the goal, others can see it as a threat to the team’s paramount value – group harmony. Members of cultures that place great value on group harmony and ‘’face’’ will avoid openly showing disagreement and feel shame if someone publicly disagrees with them.  

In addition, people differ culturally in the ways and intensity of expressing their emotions and opinions when in conflict. Jeanne Tsai, director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab, explains how in individualistic cultures people tend to express emotions to influence others. However, in collectivistic cultures, people tend to adjust to others and, while doing so, suppress and control their emotions.

Implicit vs explicit communication and expressing disagreement

How do you approach solving a problem with someone at work? Do you get it out in the open right away, being clear and direct about what the issue is and what you think is the best way to solve it? In that case, you probably have an explicit cultural preference. But you might come across as aggressive and brutal to an implicit communicator. Not only that, but you might be missing the subtle signals of disagreement that are being sent to you by your colleague with an implicit style of communication. In this situation, one thing is certain. Neither of you can stick to your way of expressing disagreement if you want to find a common solution. 

Such cultural differences can be a huge challenge when it comes to tackling a problem in a team. They call for highly developed cultural intelligence and cross-cultural communication skills. An explicit communicator, when negotiating with implicit communicators, should always be on the lookout for subtle cues, silence or an unconvincing ‘yes’ that actually means ‘no’.  If you’re in a conflict with a person with an implicit communication style, don’t be surprised if they involve a third party to intervene and help mediate the challenges. In this way, guided by their own cultural preference, they’re making sure that they don’t damage your reputation or show disrespect. 

Eliciting constructive conflict is where cross-cultural communication skills can be particularly important

Conflict can be a gold mine for new and creative ideas. But only when it’s constructive. This type of conflict calls for an inclusive environment where each person will feels safe to communicate their views and insights. As a leader, you need cultural intelligence and cross-cultural communication skills to manage surfacing disagreement into a healthy debate. Encourage discussions, watch out for miscommunication and allow everyone to participate in a way they’re most comfortable with. 

Be a conscious collaborator

Whether your cross-cultural negotiations will be successful and the conflicts in your multicultural teams constructive or not, depends on your team’s ability to manage and leverage differences. That’s why so many international organizations are training their teams in culturally intelligent communication. Country Navigator’s ‘Be a Conscious Collaborator’ training is designed to equip learners with the knowledge, attitude and skills necessary for leveraging value from diversity and increasing inclusivity in their everyday actions. 


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