Imagine two brilliant dancers, one an expert in foxtrot, the other in salsa. Each performer’s style is technically flawless, yet in tandem the pair does nothing but crush one another’s toes.
Then enter a master choreographer, keenly sensitive to each artist’s tempo, expression, style and conditioning. With her direction, the dancers achieve shared rhythm, coordinated footwork, harmony and new inspiration. The effort is a success.
On the cross-cultural negotiations stage, the players are similarly challenged to converge despite strong differences in behaviour and communication style. In The Negotiation Dance: Time, Culture, and Behavioral Sequences in Negotiation, Kellogg School of Management professor Jeanne Brett (with Wendi Adair, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo) presents the intricate patterns of international negotiation, providing insights designed to encourage sure-footedness.
Illustration by: Malay Karmakar /Mint
“Negotiating cross-culturally presents many challenges,” says Brett, the DeWitt W Buchanan Jr professor of dispute resolution, “but one of the most important is how people communicate information about their preferences and priorities”.
Brett notes that negotiators from low-context cultures—those that tend to take spoken words at face value, as in the US—typically gain information about the other’s preferences by asking and answering questions. In contrast, negotiators from high-context cultures—those in which people infer additional meaning that may be implied but not directly stated—frequently keep mental tallies of offers throughout the process. This type of behaviour is common in China, India and Japan, among other places.
“It’s important for negotiators from low-context cultures to learn to read information from the offer patterns of the other side, so as not to be at a disadvantage when a negotiator is reluctant to share information directly,” notes the professor, who has authored more than 50 articles and four books, including Negotiating Globally, which won the International Association for Conflict Management’s Outstanding Book Award in 2002.
The Negotiation Dance, published in Organization Science in 2005, presents a model that Brett teaches her students to facilitate tracking offers, infer preferences and priorities and record a visual picture of the progress of the negotiation.
Experiential learning in Brett’s class helps train students to reach the core of differences between negotiators and find resolution of those differences. Simulations used in Brett’s cross-cultural negotiation class are similar to those used in the regular Kellogg negotiations class: Students assume a role, prepare and then negotiate with a counterpart.
What’s different in the cross-cultural class, says Brett, is who is at the negotiation table. One’s counterpart may be a government official, a representative of environmental interests or simply another private sector company. It is essential that this counterpart is embedded in a different social, political and economic environment, and brings a contrasting perspective to the debate.
Brett, who initiated the Kellogg negotiating class in 1981, notes the subject’s continual growth, along with the field of international negotiations, since then. Seventeen students enrolled in her class the first year; 75 signed up a year later.
In 1997, Kellogg launched its cross-cultural negotiations offering.
“Back in 1981, we weren’t sure where the programme was headed, but (dean emeritus) Don Jacobs had a pattern of ‘watering the flowers’ to see what would grow. He wanted to give the students what they were looking for,” Brett recalls.
Students’ interest and receptiveness to the negotiations training Brett seeded more than two decades ago is clearly blossoming as many more sections of the class have been added to accommodate ever-growing demand.
Brett’s research has flourished too, extending to audiences in Japan, France and China.
In addition to her work on cross-cultural negotiations, she is also the director of the Kellogg Dispute Resolution Center, which was founded in 1986 by Northwestern University faculty in the Schools of Law, Management, and Arts and Sciences.
The Center serves as a major site for education in negotiation and dispute resolution; is a provider of continuing education programmes targeted at exposing the legal and management worlds to the latest developments in dispute resolution and negotiation; and is an internationally recognized provider of negotiation, competitive decision-making, and dispute resolution teaching materials.
Brett also serves as the editor of the Dispute Resolution Research Center’s Teaching Materials for negotiations and dispute resolution and decision making used by business, law, psychology and public policy professors in the US and beyond.
Brett’s research on negotiation continues to take her around the world as she explores and analyses different cultures first-hand. She is especially interested in researching emotions in conflict and dispute resolution negotiations, the intervention of third parties and the effects of culture, and how negotiation strategy develops over time.
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This article is based on the research of Jeanne Brett, the DeWitt W Buchanan Jr professor of dispute resolution and director of the Kellogg Dispute Resolution Center at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Romi Herron is a former staff writer at the School.