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Are your unconscious biases torpedoing business negotiations?

As you understand more about culture, you are soon aware that not everyone sees the world through your eyes. Failure to comprehend that can weaken your negotiating power.

Just back from her first visit to Shanghai, Betsy was recounting the shock she experienced when she first set foot in a supermarket there.

She listed off everything that was appalling to her: the eggs were not refrigerated, there were containers of all kinds of live animals from turtles to eels to other horrible looking fish lining some shelves, and people looked in her basket with open curiosity.

When her friends suggested that the foods made available in the supermarket must have been pleasing to the Chinese buyers and that perhaps people were looking at what she was purchasing because they were eager to learn more about her culture, she shrugged it off and insisted they must have been just as upset by what was in the store as she was.

Betsy was experiencing what cultural anthropologists describe as naïve realism, a belief that people everywhere see the world in the same way that we do.

At its most insignificant, naïve realism just leads to a little misunderstanding about the differences between two or more cultural worlds. Taken to the extreme, it can be the source of considerable conflict and torpedo the most promising business negotiation.

The person with the naïve realism can behave in ways they believe are acceptable, only to discover that such behavior is inappropriate within the cultural context of the place they are visiting.

It can work the other way as well.

A person like Betsy can welcome a guest from another country to her home and be shocked when they did not behave in ways she considers acceptable. They might explore parts of the house that Betsy considers private; they might bring an uninvited friend or pet with them, or they might make suggestions that Betsy considers to be rude about how the house could be better organized.

In a business negotiation, a person with naïve realism might assume that when a man and woman enter the boardroom, he is the boss and she is the secretary, because that is how their business is set up. They might assume in a negotiation to take over a company that hesitation on the part of the owner was because they were not offering sufficient money, since that is what they would be thinking. In reality, the person might be hesitant because they wanted to protect their employees.

The Bridging PrinciplesTM, an intercultural communication program, helps people avoid falling into the pit of naïve realism by teaching them the management skills of comprehending without judgment that all cultures are different and finding the skills to build bridges to new cultures.

For example, when you operate within your own culture, you know immediately what is an acceptable way to greet people and make them welcome. You know how to behave appropriately if you enter their home, their place of business, or even their church.

But armed with this common cultural knowledge, you can forget when you enter a new cultural space that your rules may not apply. Instead, you naively believe that the same cultural protocols apply.

As we learn more about culture, we understand that not everyone can see the world through our eyes. You have to enhance your cultural competence and understand the importance of communication in determining the source of cultural differences.

The more cultural training you can absorb and the more listening skills and observational skills you can develop, the more likely you are to overcome naïve realism and do better business across cultures.

The Bridging Principles is a blog about doing business and life differently to create better results for all. Click here to subscribe for free. To pre-order a copy of the book “The Bridging Principles: Building Bridges for Business,” coming out soon, click here. To arrange for training in The Bridging Principles for your company, email

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