Alumni Magazine Fall 2016 - page 10-11

Be Careful How You Say It
Understanding Nonverbal Communication
is Key to Success in Cross-Cultural Negotiations
The power of communication.
In the world of negotiation — whether in the
household, the workplace or the global marketplace —
a skilled communicator always has the advantage.
Successful negotiators know how to get what they
want without giving too much away. They also understand
that in the language of negotiation, what you say may not
be as important as the way you say it.
“Nonverbal communication is the driver of
relationships,” says School of Business Professor Zhaleh
Semnani-Azad. “People pick up subtle cues from tone of
voice, facial expression and posture and that significantly
influences how they interpret and respond to what
someone is saying.”
If there is an inconsistency between what people say
(words) and how they say it (tone), Semnani-Azad says,
listeners will respond to the tone. “Saying ‘I’m fine’ in a
tone that betrays otherwise, clearly means you are not
fine.”
But reading nonverbal cues correctly across
cultures can be tricky. And in the world of
international business negotiations, the fallout from
misunderstandings can be significant.
Semnani-Azad looks at the role of nonverbal
communication in cross-cultural interactions and
negotiations through the lens of cultural theory.
Her interests lie at the intersection of organizational
behavior and psychology.
Some nonverbal communication is universal: A
smile is a smile is a smile. But conflicts can and often do
arise because negotiation styles differ and because body
signals often mean different things in different cultures
and so are easily misinterpreted.
“Negotiation is a competitive situation,” she says.
“Executives who can learn how to read what the other
side is really saying with body signals and who are
sensitive to how their own signals might be perceived
have a definite advantage.”
That’s where her research comes in.
In one study looking at east-west differences,
Semnani-Azad and her colleagues videotaped a role-
playing negotiation involving Chinese and Canadian
students. The researchers analyzed six categories of
behavior: posture, head movement, hand movement,
eye gaze, facial expression and the rate at which
participants fell silent or kept talking.
While many of the nonverbal cues were used by both
groups to convey the same meanings, there were some
significant differences. For example, when projecting
dissatisfaction, Chinese participants often leaned back and
made eye contact frequently. These are body signals that
can easily be misinterpreted as positive and laid back by
westerners. The Canadian participants, on the other hand,
averted their eyes to express negativity and were likely to sit
up straight to assert dominance while the Chinese students
used that same posture to display acquiescence.
Encoded within these divides are important
cultural and social differences among populations
that also affect negotiating styles.
While Semnani-Azad looks at prototypical
behavior, she is quick to point out that there are
always differences within cultural groups. “That’s
why stereotyping can also lead to conflicts and
miscommunication.”
For companies today, training employees to raise
emotional and cultural intelligence is a smart move.
“It’s really crucial for our global working world,” says
Semnani-Azad. “When people start dealing with people
from other cultures it immediately raises anxiety. But
as understanding grows and interactions become more
frequent, anxiety diminishes and confidence develops.”
Negotiation is a competitive
situation. Executives who
can learn how to read what
the other side is really saying
with body signals and who
are sensitive to how their own
signals might be perceived
have a definite advantage.
— Zhaleh Semnani-Azad
Prof. Zhaleh Semnani-Azad
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