Meina Liu, an associate professor in the department of organization sciences and communication, discusses her research on emotional disputes.
By Kristen Mitchell
The way negotiators react to high-stakes, emotional disputes is vastly different depending on their cultural background, said Meina Liu, an associate professor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences department of organization sciences
Dr. Liu recently published a paper in Communication Research that focuses on the ways individuals from Hong Kong and the United States handle negotiations. A better understanding of these cultural differences will help people learn how to keep their cool during a dispute and prevent it from escalating to an impasse, she said.
GW Today recently spoke with Dr. Liu about her work.
Q: What question were you trying to answer with this new study?
A: The study seeks to answer the question: What is the theoretical mechanism underlying anger’s effect on relational outcomes of dispute resolution? Or What can we do to counter the detrimental effect of anger in dispute resolution?
Q: How did the individuals from Hong Kong in your study approach an emotionally-charged negotiation?
A: The study found that when Hong Kong Chinese individuals get angry in a dispute situation, they place more emphasis on gaining power rather than building trust and tend to use a power-based approach that forces conciliation through higher authority, threats and pressure tactics, rather than focusing on each other’s needs and interests.
Q: How did the Americans in in your study approach similar emotionally-charged negotiations differently?
A: The study found that anger also activates power goals for Americans. However, such goals tend to activate a right-based approach that relies on mutually acknowledged and objective standards, such as contracts or legal terms. Such an approach also moves them away from trying to understand each other’s underlying interests.
Q: Why is it important to understand these differences to effectively negotiate inter-culturally?
A: The study’s findings suggest that in emotion-laden disputes, angry feelings may activate different dispute resolution behaviors for individuals from different cultures due to different cultural values. Americans, with stronger egalitarian values, place more emphasis on perceived fairness and equity, and therefore, are more likely to use a rights-based approach to dispute resolution. Although the Chinese are considered to value relational harmony, with stronger hierarchical values, angry feelings can provoke a power-oriented mindset that views rules and regulations as less applicable, but power and coercion as more effective in achieving their goals. When disputes take place between negotiators from different cultural backgrounds, understanding these differences can help negotiators cope with their emotions, adjust their goals, practice perspective-taking and prevent an already difficult dispute from escalating into an impasse.
Q: What are some strategies or tactics you found to be effective in bringing down the temperature of a negotiation?
A: Negotiators are more likely to reach a mutually acceptable agreement when they explicitly discuss each party’s needs, concerns and interests, and engage in an open and honest exchange of information. When negative emotions arise, it is helpful to be aware of how they shift our goals from solving problems to attacking each other, so that we can overcome the tendency to reciprocate competitive tactics and redirect the negotiation toward our interests and priorities, rather than who should be blamed or who is in a stronger position.
Q: What further research on this subject do you think needs to be done?
A: Given the prevalence of social media in our life, it has become increasingly common for individuals to resolve interpersonal conflicts through computer mediated communication. To date, however, research has not examined how emotions, such as anger and compassion, influence dispute resolution in a mediated environment. One study I’m currently working on, for example, is comparing dispute resolution in face-to-face settings versus via social media and assessing how emotions may interact with communication media to shape negotiators’ (dis)trust, interaction goals, communication tactics and relational outcomes.