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Handling Silence and Disagreements: Keys to conducting business successfully in different cultures

Do you know specifically what makes you an American? A Canadian? An Israeli? An Indian? a Japanese? I am not referring to your place of birth, but rather the totality of your speech, gestures, interpersonal behaviors, communication style, everyday etiquette, values and assumptions.

Taken together, these comprise your culture. Knowing where your own culture ends and that of another businessperson’s begins is Step One on the path to conduct business successfully in different cultures.

One of the most important asspects of cross cultural communication, is in the way you conduct in negotiations.

Forbes suggests that there are two key aspects of successfully negotiating with Cultural Intelligence - silence and handling disagreements well. Let’s look at each of these.

Silence as a device

How do you “hear” silence in a business context?

If you view silence as a vacuum or, worse, as an empty gas tank that needs filling up, you may be communicating to some business people, particularly in Asian cultures, that you simply don’t care to listen to them. That will get your business deal silenced fast.

Business people of Asian backgrounds tend to include a moment or two of silence before responding. For those cultures, silence may be as much a part of the communication process as are words and gestures.

Another way to think about silence is this: even in cultures in which typically, virtually no silence exists in business contexts, there may be individuals who tend to speak more slowly and ruminatively as a matter of course.

Far from a vacuum, silence in a business context perhaps is best viewed as punctuation, emphasis (as in “a pregnant pause”), and a sign of listening to make sure the other’s remarks are complete.

So if you have a tendency to jump in when a moment of silence occurs in a business setting, look at that moment as a communication device and try to “hear” the message in the silence.

Agreeable business disagreements

Across continents, countries, or even regions (Northeast U.S. vs. the South, for instance), the ability to agreeably disagree is critical to success, but difficult to achieve. Here is a way to proceed to keep the business relationship in tact.

It’s helpful to know that reactions to business disagreements fall along a continuum of responses, from silence to shouting and everything in between.

First, understand where your own typical reaction to a disagreement in a business context falls along the continuum. Do you shout, and shout louder if you don’t feel heard? Do you put your arm around the other person as if to say, “We’re really all still friends, here, even though we disagree.” Do you retreat into silence? Into another room?

Knowing where your reaction falls on the continuum makes it easier to adjust the response you offer in a business context.

Second, identify where the other person’s reaction is falling along that continuum. As the Forbes article relates, a French business contact may be direct in approaching the disagreement and comfortable talking it through. On the other hand, “in cultures like Brazil or Thailand, disagreement is voiced more gently, and a phrase like ‘I partly agree’ may actually indicate they hate your idea.” Moving to Plan B may be the best next step.

Finally, call a break if you aren’t sure what the other person is telling you. Use the time to consider what is really being said, or to consult with someone who can help you. Your business deal may depend on it!

The takeaway is this: do your cultural intelligence homework ahead of time. Why? There are many more ways to fail to do business successfully across cultures than there are to succeed.

Note, too, that demonstrating cultural sensitivity doesn’t mean that business women need to dress saris in Mumbai; nor does it mean that businessmen should show up on time in Tokyo.

It does mean that it is vital to understand your own cultural norms and then develop the cultural intelligence to work in a way that demonstrates mutual understanding and respect.

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