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Lead Your Team Strategy

Conflict with International Business Partners? Solve It Indirectly

Conflict with International Business Partners? Solve It Indirectly
Credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Working in the international business world can create certain cultural barriers, whether it's surrounding etiquette, language or everyday social interactions. For the international business person, understanding those cultural differences and adhering to the social norms of a host country could make the difference in sealing the deal.

This is especially true of conflict resolution. Research from the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation shows that when business comes to conflict, there is a difference in style between east and west.

Professors Kristin Behfar and Ming-Jer Chen studied cultural differences in conflict resolution and found, generally, that western nations tend to respect directness while eastern nations favor a more indirect approach. Indirect confrontation is characterized by an attempt to preserve social harmony and subtle signaling to resolve a conflict, the researchers wrote. However, in the U.S., a direct style prevails, as westerners tend to prioritize business over personal feelings.

  • Prioritizes the preservation of interpersonal relationships
  • Relies on subtle signaling, rather than overt actions
  • Tends to be associated with the suppression of outward emotion
  • Frequently employs apologies as expressions of remorse, rather than of guilt
  • Often brings a third-party in from the start, rather than near the end

Indirect confrontation, the researchers found, tends to win out against a more direct style in business disputes, so it's important for western business people to be aware of the culture of their potential partners. Understanding what indirect confrontation is – and what it isn't – is essential.

So what can a person immersed in a more directly confrontational culture do to better understand indirect confrontations? It might be difficult at first to play the indirect game, but with a little attentiveness and practice, westerners can learn to successfully engage in an indirect confrontation as well. Behfar offered her advice for those curious about indirect confrontation:

  • Listen for verbal cues like asking questions, telling a story or sharing an experience.
  • Look for nonverbal signals like emotional expressions (e.g., withdrawal) and behavioral cues (crossed arms), which convey disagreement.
  • Be aware of other signals, such as putting up posters, postponing meetings and missing deadlines without warning.
  • Above all, be patient and make sure the other party can always save face.

By mastering the above skills, as well as those associated with direct confrontation, the international business person's toolbox becomes handier. Competence in indirect confrontation is another step on the road to becoming "culturally ambidextrous," as the authors of the research put it. And cultural ambidexters have a natural advantage stepping into the boardroom, wherever it might be.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.