When ‘Yes’ Means ‘Not a Chance’

“When ‘Yes’ Means ‘Not a Chance’”

yes on negotiation When ‘Yes’ Means ‘Not a Chance” was the headline on an article by Kara Alaimo in the July 31, 2016 print edition of the New York Times . The article makes a point important for every negotiation: what the other side is saying is not necessarily what they actually mean.

A good negotiator is always alive to nuances and body language from the other side, not just to the words coming out of their mouths (or the emails coming across into your computer). After all, what matters is what the other person will do at the end of the day, not what she says she will do. Sometimes it is possible to agree on a course of action even though the two sides emphasize their differences. The saying among diplomats is, France and the United States often agree in practice while disagreeing in principle, that is, the two governments can agree on what to do even though their explanations for why they are acting are entirely different.

Kara Alaimo

Kara Alaimo

Understanding what the other side means is always a difficult art. When your negotiating partner is from a different culture, the problems can be particularly acute. Every society has different customs. For instance, societies differ on ways for dealing with conflict. Believe it or not, Americans have the reputation – generally well deserved – of being blunt and to the point: they will tell you when they disagree. Other societies find that rude or unacceptable. Or another example, societies differ on what is ethical – and indeed what is legal – as inducement to the negotiators on the other side.

Often there are workarounds for cultural differences if one realizes they exist. Alaimo describes the challenge she faced as a global media coordinator for the UN because journalists from many poorer countries expected to be paid in exchange for stories, while UN rules forbid this. She found that the journalists concerned were quite willing to accept instead meals at press briefings and free transportation, which were allowed by UN rules.

Frequently, the biggest problem dealing with cultural differences is that the two sides have no clue that the differences exist. We often assume that the behavior expected in the culture in which we grew up is a universal norm; it does not occur to us that the other side has very different expectations.

One of the reasons we call our company “Mobus Creative Negotiating” is that our seminars offer creative ways to watch out for what the other side really means, not just for what they are saying. We suggest ways to find out what are the cultural expectations of the other side.