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The Magic of Pronouns in Multicultural Negotiations

The substitution of “I” and “You” with a “We” is a very common technique to evolve disagreements into an opportunity to learn, exchange and co-create, by focusing on similarities.

There are however exceptions; a typical case when it is more productive to focus on differences rather than similarities is a multicultural context where the parties are not familiar with each other's cultures.

I love disagreements. I am fascinated by disagreements. I encourage disagreements. And I teach disagreement.

In my view, open disagreements offer great opportunities for some of the richest forms of human interaction.

When people are able to openly engage in a disagreement, without escalating it into a conflict (and without resorting to warfare like overpowering others with status, data or alliances) and they put all their fierce curiosity, passion and total respect for others into a heated and articulated dialogue, the outcome is often innovative and productive.

Not only do open disagreements often lead to positive change; they may be conductive to the creation of strong relationships based on trust; after all, in an open disagreement people honestly share feelings, preferences, opinions, doubts, uncertainties and a whole baggage of personal experiences, all key ingredients of trusting relationships.

Some of the best techniques for handling disagreements in such productive ways are summarized in our C.L.E.A.R.TM Method (Grooa organizes webinars and workshops across Europe). Our method is focused on changing our own behavior, rather than on techniques aimed at changing (or manipulating) the other side. Thus we work on ensuring that we face a disagreement “with a heart at peace” i.e. not trying to overpower, convince and win; but remaining fiercely determined to offer our best and demand the best of others, in the spirit and with the intention of devising the outcome from the issue at hand.

In the introductory parts of our courses we often provide some simple techniques, to initiate the transition towards a “heart at peace”; for example, we learn and practice to switch from using “but” to using “and”. Not to manipulate the other person's reaction; but specifically to observe the shift that happens in our own attitude and behavior when we change from an excluding to an including approach.

Likewise we learn and practice the use of an inclusive “we” as opposed to using the dividing concepts of “I” vs. “You”. Something constructive happens in our brain when we stop thinking in terms of “I want the project to advance in the A direction, while you want the project to advance in the B direction” and instead we shift to thinking “we want the project to progress”; it is much easier to listen to all the aspects of the B proposition when we became more clearly aware that it is aimed at the same intention as A. And also our communication becomes more inclusive. It is a well-known fact that “bridging”, i.e. finding a common “we” is a positive step in effective negotiations. Or at least it seems to work like this, as far as we know and notice, within out Western culture.

And yet, it is always better to test our assumptions of what works and what doesn't when we face a different cultural context.

For example, a 2012 study (Bridging social distance in inter-cultural negotiations: "you" and the bi-cultural negotiator – byKern, Lee, Aytug, and Brett), reports some interesting findings:

  • In mono-cultural negotiations (Americans with Americans and Koreans with Koreans), the use of an inclusive “we” as a bridging technique was effective
  • In a dual-cultural negotiation (Americans with Koreans) the use of “we” was not effective, whereas what was effective was an inquiring approach by a culturally sensitive negotiator with the use of a “you” offered as an acknowledgment of the difference. This was apparently viewed as more considerate than pretending to ignore the social distance.
  • However, overuse of the pronoun “I” may indicate individuality and arrogance, in several countries indicating a low level of social skills, or even a lower level of authority; hence the best way to indicate acknowledgment of social distance in this situation is not “I” vs. “you” but rather “we” vs. “you” even if the negotiator is alone (in this case “we” is used as “pluralis majestatis)

Further empirical observations confirm the importance of using culturally skilled negotiators, often defined not only as people who have lived in (not only travelled to), countries of significantly different culture; but also who have lived alone in those countries, rather than bringing their own family and cultural roots with them.

Such skilled negotiators have typically developed the ability to detect signals of social distance that may require acknowledgment before any attempts to bridge.

Such skilled negotiators are able to play the “magic of the pronouns” as appropriate.

Note:
The C.L.E.A.R.TM Method (Invite Dialogue, Trust Outcome):

Clear your head of worries, anxieties and assumptions
Lead an open dialogue with confidence, courage, and a smile
Encourage and invite different opinions and perspectives
Align on common intentions and accept differences
Recognize the opportunity and create positive change, together

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