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Navigating Language Barriers in International Negotiations

By |July 25, 2022

As we continue coaching clients all around the world, there’s a tendency we see over and over again in which folks think that certain negotiation tactics only work in the United States. 

We remind these people that hostage negotiators are all trained the same way, whether they work in Tokyo, Jakarta, Berlin, Johannesburg, or Santiago. The underlying Black Swan skills are universal because human nature is the same regardless of where you go.

That said, international negotiations are not without their challenges. Chief among them is the fact that language barriers exist. Certain words don’t have the same meaning when translated into different languages. 

Keep reading to learn more about the challenges inherent in international negotiations and what you can do to get your desired outcomes.

Lean on someone from the other culture.

two men and one woman from different countries negotiate a contract

One easy way to avoid or minimize communication issues during international negotiations is by having someone from that culture or group on your negotiation team. This individual should understand the culture you are dealing with, help you navigate the conversation, and help you avoid committing a major faux pas.

Sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, not every negotiator will have the luxury of enlisting the help of someone who understands the other culture. 

If you find yourself in that situation, you can still prepare by studying the culture your counterpart comes from. If you happen to know someone from that culture, why not give them a call to get more information? You might also consider asking them if you could talk business with a no-oriented question: Would you be opposed to me running my pitch by you first to make sure it’s not offensive? 

Always remember to stay curious. When you ask questions like What are some of the things I need to be aware of to reduce the likelihood of offending the other side during my conversation with them?, you show that you’re sincere in your attempts to understand your counterpart and uncover additional information.

Coach Your Translator.

If you’re speaking in your native tongue and someone is listening in their native tongue, some words will be lost in translation due to natural language barriers. You can sidestep this problem—at least to an extent—by instructing your translator to relay your message, verbatim.  While they relay, you maintain your focus on the counterpart as if the translator is not there.  Make sure the translator understands the importance of relaying the exact words and inflections used by your counterpart.  Keep your mouth shut and listen more than you speak, exactly as you would when talking to someone who speaks the same language as you.

Even if there’s a language gap between you and your counterpart, everybody knows what it’s like to treat someone else with respect. Showing deference and humility by listening to the other side is a universal behavior that works across the globe.

Whenever you’re unsure about something, use Labels™ to clarify the situation and ensure you are on the same page: It sounds like you want a deal. Maybe they will tell you they’re not ready for a deal and are just trying to scope things out. Lean on Labels again: It seems like you’re a very busy, hard-working person. By showing that you are eager to understand and trying not to offend the other side, you can develop a rapport and work together to arrive at a deal.

Remember: Wherever you are, the skills are the same!

If you only take away one idea from this blog post, let it be this: No matter where in the world you find yourself negotiating—and no matter what culture your counterpart comes from—use the same Black Swan skills of Labels, Mirrors™, and Dynamic Silence™

Although language barriers mean you might not get everything right, showing deference and respect will ensure your counterpart appreciates your efforts and understands that you are trying your best to see things from their perspective.

Just because you might be negotiating with someone who speaks a different language doesn’t mean you can't make a deal. With the right approach, you can work around language barriers and achieve better business outcomes.

For more information on skills that apply in universal settings, check out our infographic, “The Black Swan Group's Negotiation 9™️️️ (N9™️️️).”

The Black Swan Group Negotiation 9