Principled, Informed and Respectful: My “Secret” for Working with China

 

I recently gave a talk at the US Chamber of Commerce where I revealed my principles for working with Chinese policy makers on IP and trade issues.  Several seasoned “China hands” have since told me that they thought my principles of engagement would work in almost any area. 

These simple principles evolved, frankly, from my own concerns when I was posted to the US Embassy in Beijng (2004-2008).  At that time  I had a hard time in determining how I should plan my presentations and negotiations.  My Chinese friends told me that they sometimes feared that I was like a “Rat in the Accordion, Getting Pressure from Both SIdes“ (风箱里的老鼠——两头受气).  I often felt as if I was walking a proverbial tightrope. I had to find the right balance between engaging China and making progress.  Sometimes I had to advance issues that neither side understood well, and I needed to avoid embarrassing anybody.  Often, I would walk up to friends after I delivered a presentation and ask them “did I strike the right tone?”, “was I too harsh?”.  Not only was I concerned about how my message was delivered, I wanted to know how I should measure myself — did I live up to my own standards?

The three principles I developed are quite simple.  In any significant discussion, I am to be Principled, Informed and Respectful.

By principled,  I know my bottom line, and I know where I can  make concessions.  I also have thought about my negotiating partners’ positions and I am prepared to articulate what I think is a reasonable position for them, based on my ideals.  I am also prepared to learn why their principles may be different.  I do not seek to either be excessively accommodating, nor do I wish to be unnecessarily confrontational.   I recognize that in a mature negotiating environment, we may agree to disagree, or we may agree on certain matters we have in common, and set aside our differences for another time. 

By informed, I do my homework on why I am asking my negotiating partner to do something that it may not recognize is in its own best interests.  I understand how my own legal system accommodates a particular challenge, as well as how the Chinese system addresses this challenge. Where possible,  I have also looked at the issue analytically and empirically. If I believe China is not likely to be as well informed, I may use the negotiating environment as an opportunity to both educate and persuade.   If my information suggests that the political environment may make it difficult for China to discuss a matter in a substantive way, I may need to develop a longer term strategy and I am prepared to be patient. 

I also try to be informed about whom I am negotiating with and their agency, as it is pointless to deliver messages that cannot be implemented. I have generally found that being informed is one of the surest ways of developing trust and long term relationships.

By respectful, I am prepared to understand the other side’s opinions.  I frequently couch my suggestions with language such as “In my observations…”, or “I have noticed….”, “My personal feelings are….”, in order to avoid giving the impression that I am dispensing dogma from a superior position.  I should also be respectful of others’ time and try to make meetings as efficient as possible – which is sometimes difficult in Beijing’s traffic.  I believe that without respect, there is no assurance that any message you deliver will be heard.   

If however, I am treated with disrespect, I am prepared to respond based on my principles why I think a position is wrong and insist on a civil discussion.   I am thankful that over the years, I have observed many skilled negotiators who were talented in delivering some of the most difficult messages in a respectful way.  I won’t embarass them by repeating their names here – but I do believe that it is the mark of a good negotiator that she or he can depersonalize the most difficult positions, and accord his or or her partner respect in order to achieve a common goal. 

I don’t know if all negotiations can achieve a “yes.”  I am agnostic on what all negotiations can achieve.  I measure myself in smaller increments, without the sense that I can resolve everything.  Rather, I have used these three benchmarks to plan what I want to say, and to evaluate myself after a meeting. Often Chinese friends have come to me afterwards to express their appreciation even when our opinions differed widely. 

These days, I now worry less about being a “rat in the accordion”.  I hope instead that I am keeping a proper balance on the issues, and try to enjoy the ride.

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