Lost in Translation - Negotiating Across Language Barriers

overcoming language barriers in negotiation

A few weeks ago we looked at best practices when it comes to negotiating across cultures, and today we’re addressing some of the challenges that arise when you may have adapted to culture…but language barriers remain.

The partners, clients and vendors you’re doing business with are located around the globe and while English is often the common language of business, it may be the 2nd (or 3rd, or 4th) language of your counterparts.

Here are a few essentials for leading successful negotiations with multilingual counterparts. 

Avoid colloquialisms

There are certain business phrases that will pop out of our mouths without much thought. We say that we’ll ‘run it up the ladder’ or take that back to head office to ‘download after the meeting’. We’ll explore solutions on the ‘low hanging fruit’.

When we’re sitting around a table with our teammates and colleagues these expressions may perfectly convey what our goals and next steps are, but to a non-native English speaker they can create confusion.

Keep an eye out for visual cues that something hasn’t been understood (a furrowed brow, or quizzical look) and find standard, simpler ways to communicate the same idea. You’ll seek approval from your boss, share the information with your team, or focus on elements your teams are close to an agreement on. Much clearer.

Build in extra time

Even with high levels of fluency or proficiency, it takes longer to process information in a language other than your mother tongue. A conversation may have more pauses as vocabulary is chosen or verbs are conjugated. A contract may take twice as long to review as unfamiliar terminology and concepts are translated.

When setting your negotiation schedule and agenda, build in extra breakout sessions for teams to confer and review language. These side conversations may be key to your counterpart having a clear understanding of the deal you’re creating.

Also build in extra time for covering discussion topics in both spoken and written word. Use of screen sharing or whiteboards to make co-drafting easier to follow.

Watch your assumptions

Say what you mean, and mean what you say…but language and culture can impact that. Just because everyone at the table is nodding along, or saying that they agree, it’s best to double-check that everyone understands the agreement in the same way. Ensuring this during the negotiations (instead of miscommunications or misunderstandings being uncovered during the approval phase of your deal) will allow you an opportunity to re-group and find another path forward without losing too much momentum or getting stuck in the Danger Zone.

An excellent way to spot any differences in interpretation is to have both your team and your counterparty’s explain the deal in their own words. There may be nuances missed or assumptions made that aren’t clear from contract redlines alone.


Fundamental to achieving brilliant negotiation results when working with multilingual counterparts is patience. In a world where time is money and deadlines are tight, this patience can be difficult to muster – but ensuring a strong result for your organization will being benefit for years to come.