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Clarity in Communication

October 4, 2013

Earlier this week, I wrote about the cost of errors in drafting. But those who regularly negotiate are also well aware of the need for clarity in communication. Especially when dealing internationally, there are many opportunities for misunderstanding.

This was one element of a conversation I had this week in a webinar with Dr Karen Walch, a professor from Thunderbird School of Global Management. We were reviewing recent IACCM research on cross-culture and international negotiations. This highlighted the many areas in which there can be unintentional but substantial misunderstanding, if we are not aware of cultural norms or expressions. (Karen and I will both be speaking at the up-coming Global Summit on Negotiation and Trust, to be held November 8th – 10th in Phoenix and featuring many world-leaders from the field of negotiation – see http://globalsummitonnegotiation.com/).

Much of this has an inevitable impact on trust. Whole nations can become castigated for their lack of openness or honesty, when perhaps the issue is due to a fundamental mismatch in norms of expression and behaviour. Of course, added to this there are major variations in values and standards which can be related to issues such as status, or to historic perceptions of value and ownership in areas such as intellectual property rights.

Often, negotiators can be lulled into a false sense of security when they are dealing in their own language. Somehow this leads us to believe that there must also be common understanding. Yet that is frequently not the case because each of us uses words and expressions in our own cultural context – even when the national language is apparently the same.  An interesting example of this appeared recently in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, which picked up a list of common British expressions circulating via social media and highlighted how those who use the same language (in this case Americans) can still understand something quite different. On one level, this reflects the British cultural norm of self-deprecation; on another it helps explain the age-old view of ‘perfidious Albion’; on a third, it highlights the importance of testing understanding. And at its simplest, it offers a source of amusement!

2 Comments
  1. Tim,
    Good post. I’ve always considered Brits to be a little “cheeky” in there conversation. I did a similar comparison on what I call “sales speak” that you might enjoy reading
    http://knowledgetonegotiate.blogspot.com/2011/01/sales-speak.html

  2. Great topic Tim. I believe that strong communication and cross-cultural skills are key for any negotiator. The ability to communicate in the client’s language also builds trust. I spoke on this very topic at the Institute of Linguist’s Business, Professions and Government Division AGM – http://goo.gl/xhHrJl and will be talking about these skills in relation to China at the forthcoming UK annual APMP conference http://goo.gl/ne3ISn

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