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Business Negotiations – When ‘Yes’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Yes’

By Dennis Keay

Have you ever been in a negotiation and thought you’d come to an agreement with the other party, only to find later that you and they have different understandings of what was agreed?

This is a fairly common scenario, and often occurs even in ‘good faith’ negotiations, where each party is trying to be upfront, honest and fair. It can occur simply because each party makes assumptions that, in the end, are false.  One such assumption is that ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes’!

When ‘Yes’ doesn’t mean ‘Yes’

I recall a situation many years ago where John1, a senior executive I reported to, was frustrated by the time it was taking one of my colleagues, Jane1, to reach an agreement with a Japanese supplier on a major long-term contract…even though she had flown to Japan to negotiate.

Jane spoke 5 languages, had lived and worked in many parts of the world, including China, and was very culturally aware. She was aware of the importance of building social relationships and trust. This can be a slow process but is fundamental to building solid, long-term relationships…which is what was needed in this case.

Jane was also aware that in many Asian cultures it is important that individuals don’t ‘lose face’ or cause others to lose face. ‘Losing face’ is where a person loses the respect of others and becomes humiliated and loses self-esteem.

One aspect of avoiding making others lose face is to not overtly disagree with them, or in other words, to avoid saying ‘No’!  As a consequence, sometimes during negotiations with Japanese people they may say ‘Yes’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘Yes, they agree’, it can simply mean ‘Yes, I hear what you’re saying’.

Due to John’s frustration, he took matters into his own hands and flew to Japan to negotiate the contract. He returned a few days later, very proud of using his status and authority and boasting to us of his ability to get them to say ‘Yes’!  It was a sad day for us, because we knew of his ‘negotiating style’ and the damage it could do to relationships and cooperation. Our fears were well founded, and in the end it was John who lost face.

When ‘Yes’ Does Mean ‘Yes’ … But…

There was quite a different situation in which I was personally involved when working for General Motors. I was responsible for ensuring that certain vehicles we were considering importing from a General Motors subsidiary in Korea, met our quality standards.

As part of confirming that appropriate quality checks were being done during the design and development of the vehicle, I requested ‘Glide Path’ reports and information. After weeks of emails and discussions, my counter-part in Korea still wasn’t providing the information I required. So, I flew there to get to the bottom of it.

I discovered that he was trying to be as cooperative as possible, but even though we were both using the term ‘Glide Path’, we had quite different understandings of what that meant. I thought it was a commonly understood process across General Motors, but, apparently not. A false assumption on my behalf…and to be fair, the Korean plant hadn’t always been part of the General Motors family…they were an acquisition.

The Point

There are a couple of points here:

  • Be very wary when communicating with counter-parts from other cultures. Even though we may use the same English words, it doesn’t mean we attach the same meaning to them.
  • Be mindful of cultural customs, norms and sensitivities.

    For those negotiating with foreign suppliers or customers, I highly recommend cross-cultural training and/or engaging someone who has strong cross-cultural under-standing / experience to support your negotiations.


1 John and Jane aren’t their real names.

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