Have you ever noticed how sometimes negotiators hold to their position unnecessarily strongly even when the other side’s proposal is acceptable to them? It’s because they want to avoid the appearance and feeling of backing down. They want to ‘save face’.
Although the concept of saving face originated in Eastern cultures and features prominently in many aspects of social relationships throughout Asia, it is also an important concept that impacts on negotiation outcomes in the West.
In this article we share our tips on how to negotiate across cultural boundaries. And in doing so, we draw on our observations of one of the most notable international negotiations of the 20th century: the Cuban missile crisis.
Saving face and giving face
Papers released from the archives suggest that saving face played an important role the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. This historic negotiation came down to just one question. How could Kennedy and Khrushchev both retreat to more peaceful positions while retaining their personal and national honour in relation to each other and the international arena?
The crisis was resolved when Kennedy gave Khrushchev a way out by privately agreeing not to invade Cuba and to withdraw missiles from Turkey. In Kennedy’s memoirs he wrote that he learned a key lesson during this negotiation: ‘Don’t humiliate your opponent.’ In short, he appreciated the importance of giving face to Khrushchev personally and also to the Russian people.
Research suggests that in collectivist cultures (such as China), the face of the group is more important than the face of any individual. In contrast, more individualist cultures (such as North America and Western Europe) the individual’s face is generally considered more important than that of the group.
Whatever your cultural background, negotiating with people from other cultures requires a keen awareness of the different customs and diversity of cultural experience of the opposing negotiators. Here are some tips to consider.
Tips for managing ‘face’ in negotiation
- Enter the mindset and cultural context of the other party. This is always the most important step towards securing your desired outcome. To do this effectively, you’ll need to do your homework. Ask yourself, ‘What do I not understand about the other party’s cultural context right now? What do I need to do to find out more?’
- Appreciate that face is a major motivator to action. Conflict occurs when an individual or group’s face is threatened. On the other hand, conflict is reduced when people feel that their face is safe. Think about how you can adapt your approach so that it will be perceived as securing and enhancing face for all parties. One strategy is to ask the other party for their views and build on them rather than trying to sell them your views. Or you could present the other party with several options and invite them to make a choice.
- Consider the relative importance of face at the individual and group level. Is the other party more likely to be motivated by individual or group concerns? How will their stakeholders react to any potential outcome and how might they influence the behaviour of the negotiating party?
- Think deeply about how each society sees and evaluates face based on their cultural norms and values. Note the distinctions between saving, losing, giving and receiving face.
- Consider how you can publicly honour and give face to the other side and the group they represent. If national identity is an aspect of your negotiation, cast your mind back to Kennedy and Khrushchev. What can you offer that will have visibility at the personal, organisational, national and international level? While it may cost you little to give, you may receive a lot in return!
How ENS can help
ENS consultants work with clients all over the world to help them learn how to negotiate effectively in cross-cultural situations. Understanding each other’s point of view and how the concept of face impacts on your scenario could be make all the difference to the outcome of your next negotiation.
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