Imagine two brilliant dancers, one an expert in fox trot, the other in salsa. Each performer’s style is technically flawless, yet in tandem the pair does nothing but crush one another’s toes.

Enter a master choreographer, keenly sensitive to each artist’s tempo, expression, style and conditioning. With her direction, the dancers achieve shared rhythm, coordinated footwork, harmony and new inspiration.

On the cross-cultural negotiations stage, the players are similarly challenged to converge despite strong differences in behavior and communication style.  In “The Negotiation Dance: Time, Culture, and Behavioral Sequences in Negotiation,” Kellogg School Professor Jeanne Brett (with Professor Wendi Adair of Cornell University) presents the intricate patterns of international negotiation, providing insights designed to encourage sure-footedness.

“Negotiating cross culturally presents many challenges,” says the DeWitt W. Buchanan Jr. Professor of Dispute Resolution, who joined Kellogg in 1976, “but one of the most important is how people communicate information about their preferences and priorities.”

Brett notes that negotiators from low-context cultures, those that tend to take spoken words at face value, as in the U.S., typically gain information about the other’s preferences by asking and answering questions. In contrast, negotiators from high-context cultures, those in which people infer additional meaning that may be implied but not directly stated, common in China, India and Japan, frequently keep mental tallies of offers throughout the process. “It’s important for negotiators from low-context cultures to learn to read information from the offer patterns of the other side, so as not to be at a disadvantage when a negotiator is reluctant to share information directly,” notes the professor, who also is director of the Kellogg Dispute Resolution Research Center and has authored more than 50 articles and four books, including Negotiating Globally.

“The Negotiation Dance,” published in Organization Science in 2005, presents a model that Brett teaches her students, to facilitate tracking offers, infer preferences and priorities and record a visual picture of the progress of the negotiation.

Experiential learning in Brett’s class helps train students to reach the core of differences between negotiators and find resolution of those differences.  Simulations used in Brett’s cross-cultural negotiation class are similar to those used in the regular Kellogg negotiations class: students assume a role, prepare and then negotiate with a counterpart.
What’s different in the cross-cultural class, says Brett, is who is at the negotiation table.  One’s counterpart may be a government official, a representative of environmental interests or simply another private sector company, but one embedded in a different social, political and economic environment.

Brett, who initiated the Kellogg negotiating class in 1981, notes the subject’s continual growth, along with the field of international negotiations, since then.  Seventeen students enrolled in her class the first year; 75 signed up a year later.  In 1997, Kellogg launched its cross-cultural negotiations offering.

“Back in 1981, we weren’t sure where the program was headed, but Don Jacobs had a pattern of ‘watering the flowers’ to see what would grow.  He wanted to give the students what they were looking for,” Brett recalls.

Students’ interest and receptiveness to the negotiations training Brett seeded more than two decades ago is clearly blossoming: Today, Kellogg offers 24 sections of the class.

Brett’s research has flourished too, extending to audiences in Japan, France and China. Scheduled for the choreographer’s summer routine is her production of a CD to accompany the revised edition of Negotiating Globally, the scholar’s response to international acclaim and her publisher’s request for an encore.