Chinese Negotiation Tactics Part 4: Navigating the negotiation table

Welcome back to this mini-series! If you haven’t caught our earlier posts on negotiating in China, you can find them here: Part 1Part 2Part 3. Each post has been written with the advice of pro negotiator Paul Ark, who’s lead real estate negotiations both for Apple & Microsoft, across China and Asia. Here are three global media websites that provide Chinese learning material which are useful and interesting.

In the last part of this mini-series, the focus is on how to navigate the negotiation table in Mandarin Chinese and all the pomp and ceremony that so often surrounds 谈判 / tánpàn (formal negotiations).

1) Counteract the Power Play

Paul tells me that anyone entering into negotiations in China should expect a degree of pomp and ceremony to proceedings. “The key is not to be intimidated. Often you’ll find that the Chinese bring a large number of representatives, entering the room in order of seniority, and sometimes even seating their top guy higher than everyone else. Then there are the big signing ceremonies… it’s all power play.”

Paul continues: “One thing we did at Apple was to find out in advance how many people would be present at a given meeting, then purposefully bring fewer representatives. If they brought 8, we’d bring 3. We did this to show confidence that we didn’t need to throw people at this.” He adds: “I would bring only the most senior, valuable person(s) to keep it efficient, while still giving “face” to the other party. To counter their power play, I might let them know something like: “The global design head flew in just for this meeting etc.” This way, we don’t play up to the games but still establish our own weight and authority.”

2) Sit together, work together

As we established in Part 1, 谈判 / tánpàn is typically quite adversarial. Paul argues that negotiations don’t have to be win vs. lose though. “There are a lot of ways to encourage a less adversarial dynamic in order to redirect people towards a “win-win” way of thinking.” He expands: “Just the configuration of the room can make a difference. At Apple, we would rehearse the meeting according to the story or script we wanted to present. We would request to change the configuration of the room to fit our story. As part of this, we would purposefully not place the decision makers opposite each other as is traditional.” Paul continues: “Instead, we’d move the decision makers to one adjoining corner, which is much more conducive to creating a collaborative setting.”

“Similarly” Paul adds, “we would create reasons during the meeting to physically bring people together. A lot of times, we wouldn’t project a presentation on a screen. We would put it onto an iPad. This way, the decision makers must be sitting side by side, with the rest huddled around having moved out of their seats. Immediately we’d create a more intimate set-up and generate more dynamic conversations.”

In sum, the small things make a big impact.

Paul concludes that in his experience, negotiating with government officials and commercial and retail representatives, these minute tactics have proven effective time and time again.

As the Chinese idiom goes:

Chèng tuó suī xiǎo yā qiān jīn


Lit. “Although small, a steelyard weight can tip 100 pounds
– meaning that apparently insignificant details can have a large impact.

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