In the corridors of international commerce, negotiating skills are often taken for granted, according to Hank Sydor.

In the corridors of international commerce, negotiating skills are often taken for granted. All business people have a need for this often-undervalued skill.

Paul Wineman, a negotiations trainer in Marina Del Rey, Calif., says, "Americans don't have the foggiest idea how to negotiate. They don't like to negotiate - they feel it is demeaning to ask for a lower price. The seller has a take it or leave it attitude, and Americans usually take it."

But it is not only sales executives who have a need for negotiating skills. Getting a shipment through customs, leasing overseas office space, interpreting how a foreign country's constantly changing tax laws work - all require more than the ordinary negotiator's skill learned in one's home country. These and other ambiguous situations where support of local authorities or in-country business partners is critical and make one's negotiating skill a very important attribute.

Glen Fisher, in his book International Negotiation, states, "While one may recognize that negotiating internationally does pose a challenge in coping with a wider range of styles of decision-making, perception of objective or thought process than would be encountered at home, 'cultural factors' remains a vague and fuzzy concept not easily translated into practical application."

The greater the differences between cultures, the greater the potential for misunderstanding and loss of time spent talking past one another.

A perfect example is when Americans often get frustrated with their Japanese negotiating partners since they generally are not comfortable entering into a working process based on a more Western give-and-take approach. In Japan's culture, negotiation with another party is seen more as an occasion to ceremoniously adopt what has already been worked out behind closed doors. To openly disagree at a formal stage is not only distasteful, but also embarrassing.

Thus, the assumption that people are pretty much the same the world over only gets one into immediate trouble around an international negotiating table. Further, excellent skills attained in a domestic setting may not go far in a global setting.

Fisher also warns, "Our perception habits become so locked in that it may be impossible to see something that conflicts with the way we expect to see it. Hence, we are subject to optical illusions and let stereotypes flaw our judgment. A different kind of effort is required to adjust one's perception and assumptions to more closely match reality in a cross-cultural negotiation without falling into the naeve assumption that the ways of thinking normal in one's own cultural are a matter of general human nature or should have universal application."

Placing one's own meaning on an incoming message is hazardous enough, but we often take it a step further by attempting to project that same meaning on the foreign party. Our unconscious habit is to put an "American" frame of reference on any cross-border communication, and that can ultimately damage chances for success.

Fisher explains further that when the players around a negotiating table have been socialized in different cultures, "the tactics and ploys, bargaining strategies use of supporting data, equating interests, fall back positions, etc. are much less interchangeable from one person to another." And since communication depends on there being a reasonable similarity of such social programming between parties, the more abstract the subject matter, the greater the possibility for difficulties and misunderstandings.

Therefore, more specific attention has to be given to what goes on inside the heads of negotiators on both sides of the table as they perceive the interests and issues at hand and choose their responses.

Mistakes to Avoid When Doing Business in a Country Like Japan:

Everyone Seems to Speak English
The mistake is that there is a lot more happening below the surface. You ask, "What's so different about Japan?" My reply to you is, "What could possibly be the same?"

Hiring in Asia, people are not only hired for their skills, but also for their networks. Because Western companies tend to base hiring decisions on first impressions and comfort level without a full due-diligence check, they also end up with both the good and the bad.

There is a right way and a wrong way to fire in every country. Americans ask, "What can I do that is within the legal limits?" But throughout much of the world, that's the least of your problems. Disgruntled dismissed employees in Asia have been known to seek retribution or justification through gossip, revenge or acts of sabotage.

Because Asians tend to identify with groups as opposed to seeing themselves as individuals, their desire for group exclusivity can cut others out. If not managed properly, this can lead to factionalism and the advancement of employee objectives rather than those of the company. Factionalism will happen anyway, but by broadening employee education, involving staff in the business planning process and envisioning a broader view, cohesion and unity of purpose can result.

Home-office Favoritism
Those who speak English and act more Western may be favored. This causes jealousy, dissension and unrest among the out-group, in-country staff. Sabotage can be the most common result. North American companies with overseas problems assume that managing crises is a part of the learning curve. In actuality, cultures are so incredibly different that missteps, which could have been managed, result in devastation.

Language Limitations
Less than 2 percent of native-born Americans are fluent in a foreign language, yet the majority of U.S. foreign language enrollment still is in French and Spanish. In China - a country with increasing influence and involvement in global business issues - less than 10 percent of American expatriates can speak Mandarin. Yet, less than 1 percent of American university students are studying Chinese or Japanese today.

Poorly Traveled Population
Foreign travel still remains limited to a select few and mostly to countries that speak English. Less than 3 percent of American college students study abroad today. Only 1,000 American students are currently studying in China, which is predicted to be the second largest economy in the world in coming decades.