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Strengthen Non-verbal Communication Cues While Negotiating

When negotiating with international vendors or clients, one improper hand gesture or bow of the head could put unnecessary strain on an international business relationship.

"Each culture has a set of non-verbal cues of their own, and some can be very misleading to an American executive," says Candice Pascoal, CEO of ExponentialGc.com, a company based in Amsterdam and Salvador, Brazil, which helps businesses expand into foreign markets. When negotiating overseas, mastering communication strategies like the art of body language is sometimes even more important than learning the spoken language of a given country, she says.

Here are communication strategies for strengthening non-verbal cues when negotiating cross-culturally.

“We can completely ruin a deal or a negotiation if we don’t read their signs correctly, or if we don’t emit the correct signs, as well.”

— Candice Pascoal, CEO of ExponentialGc.com

1. Understand the Culture's Non-verbal Negotiation Style

Every country has its own type of cuisine, celebrations and national pastimes. Likewise, each business culture also has its own non-verbal negotiation style, says Jim Anderson, owner of Blue Elephant Consulting, a business communication consultancy in Tampa, Fla.

For example, in some countries the negotiation style may be more expressive. In this case, becoming a bit more expressive could help a business owner put his or her business partner at ease.

2. Understand the Meaning Behind Non-verbal Cues

A non-verbal communication cue may mean one thing in the U.S. and something very different in another country, Pascoal says. Thus, it's important for international business owners to know these differences and leverage them.

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For example, in the U.S., if a negotiating business partner closes his or her eyes, a business owner may assume the partner is uninterested, bored or tired. But in Japan, these actions are taken to mean the opposite.

"It is very common for a Japanese businessman to close his eyes during a meeting to really absorb your words," Pascoal says. "This may well mean they're actually quite interested in what you're saying." And in India, she says, the same head movement actually means 'yes' and 'no.' To learn more about avoiding miscommunication, business owners can read books about the business culture in which they're interested.

3. Understand How to Manage Personal Space

Mila Golovine, founder and president of Houston-based MasterWord Services Inc., a global provider of industry-specific language solutions, says that the use of personal space is one of the key non-verbal communication devices that vary cross-culturally. 

For instance, in America, business partners tend to keep an arm's length between one another, she notes. But in some European countries - such as France - standing within inches of a conversation partner creates trust and intimacy. If a U.S. businessperson were in talks regarding the issue of international payment terms - such as the sale price, when payments will be made, in what currency and using what type of foreign exchange service - it may be helpful to consciously sit closer to his or her counterpart from the French company. This kind of subtle decision can make the other party feel more comfortable, and therefore more willing to compromise.  

In whatever country a business owner finds himself or herself, they will likely have to make some quick and astute observations about their negotiating partner's unique communication style. Reading and responding to these non-verbal communication cues is a key component to building cross-boarder relationships. "When it comes to foreign cultures, these signs are especially relevant because they can be so confusing," Pascoal says. "We can completely ruin a deal or a negotiation if we don't read their signs correctly, or if we don't emit the correct signs, as well."



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