Philosophical Counseling and Cross-Cultural Negotiations

November 16, 2000

Gregory Tropea

Simon Fraser University Vancouver (at Harbour Centre)


Negotiations always occur between parties who believe that some benefit may come of purposeful discussion. Except for sham or pretext negotiations, which are not true negotiations and have their own rules of engagement, the parties to a negotiation necessarily share an intention to reach an agreement. This is the touchstone to which any thinking of negotiations must refer. While there may be some reason to view negotiations as attempts by each party to get the better of the other, this particular type of adversarial negotiation is really just one of the options available. Among the beginning principles of a negotiation must be an acknowledgment that the parties to a negotiation have both individual and group interests that are partially shared and partially in conflict, though the parameters and proportions of these agreements and disagreements will never be thoroughly known; this acknowledgment identifies both the reason and the essential subject matter for reflection on a wide range of issues relevant to a negotiation.

Any negotiation challenges the parties involved in a variety of ways, but parties with conflicting interests face important additional difficulties when attempting to negotiate an agreement between across culture lines. Not only will the difficulties arising from the known similarities and differences of opinion be more pronounced, but unsuspected factors could easily enter the picture and condition perceptions of the situation. In cross-cultural negotiation, a reasonable second acknowledgment should be that the hidden factors that are always at work are more likely to interfere with reaching an agreement. It is especially important that this acknowledgment be understood to apply not only to the dynamics of interactions across the table, but those of individuals on the same side of the table.

Our thesis is that maintaining a philosophical disposition, along with ability to use some critical and constructive techniques typical of philosophical counseling practice, can provide an additional measure of conceptual power with which to address problems and possibilities of negotiation. Moreover, the utility of these techniques increases when negotiations occur across culture lines. Even though negotiations generally are relatively high-context engagements because the need to reach an agreement simultaneously supplies many assumptions and narrows the scope of interaction, there are still many dimensions open to destructive misunderstanding.

Experienced negotiators readily acknowledge or even promote the idea that negotiation is not an entirely rational process, and negotiating across culture lines casts conventions of rationality into even greater suspicion, so an understandable skepticism greets the thesis that philosophical techniques, even those expressly characterized as techniques of practical philosophy, have anything to contribute to the process. The stereotype of the detached or idealistic philosopher is, after all, categorically at odds with the pragmatic agenda constructed for a proper negotiation. But that stereotype is also quite at odds with philosophical counseling's fundamental premise that philosophical reflection can meaningfully contribute to better outcomes in daily affairs as different as creating a business plan and mourning the death of a loved one. It is, then, one thing to recognize that negotiations and bargaining are not entirely rational and yet another to assert that there is nothing to be gained by bringing techniques of rational thinking into the process.

The premise of practical philosophy is not that all processes can be made to unfold according to an ostensibly rational prescription, nor even that it would be a noble effort to try to make that happen. Practical philosophy's purpose is to help people choose the best conceptual tools for the actual tasks of thinking with which they are concerned. That being said, philosophical counselors overwhelmingly understand themselves to be operating according to a methodology that is thoroughly subject to rational evaluation, even at those points where non-rational methods are (intentionally) included in the thought process. So, while universally willing to engage in rational discussion of methods, the several hundred philosophical counselors practicing around the world have not shown any sign of agreement on whether practical philosophy itself should include ways of thinking that do not follow a rationalized procedure. In this regard, philosophical counseling reflects continuing differences within the field of philosophy about the nature of thinking.

This methodological point is revealing of how philosophical counseling differs from psychological counseling. Categorically, any psychological attempt to resolve the issue of the nature of thinking is necessarily founded on some prior philosophical position that defines in general what will count as thinking; a phenomenon must first be identified before it can be investigated. So, from the perspective of philosophy, a psychological position on the nature of thinking that did not acknowledge its philosophical foundations would simply be begging the question. In thinking about negotiations, one proceeds psychologically if the focus is on the working of the minds of the parties, but philosophically if the focus is on the contents and relationships of ideas. It is important to register that in negotiations, communication of ideas will not always occur in explicit verbalizations, another factor complicating cross-cultural negotiations, even though it is typical of agreements to state falsely that what is reduced to writing is all that has been agreed; the history of case-law surprises should be sufficiently cautionary in this regard. So, while psychological factors are undeniably important in negotiations, there is a separate area of need to be addressed by distinctly philosophical methods.

The notion of approaching difficult practical problems with philosophical precision dates at least as far back as Confucius in the East, the Nyaya school of India, and Aristotle in the West. Cultural traditions with a substantial history of writing all have included constituencies of varying influence who recognized the power of orderly argumentation, with priority generally given to forms of reasoning we would understand as simple deductions. While a statistical induction might look reasonable to some and irresponsible to others, for example, there will be very little disagreement across time and culture about modus ponens or chain argument reasoning.

The place of philosophical rationality in the conduct of practical business has been recognized as a problem at least since Confucius, who seemed to believe that one could not become really human without an adequate cultural education. This voluntaristic conception of the human is but one way of problematizing rationality. In the West, Darwin and Freud, each in his own way, undermined faith in rationality as a given. The traditional view of negotiation as non-rational, combined with evidence that leading thinkers of both the recent and distant past have substantiated a human propensity to the non-rational, makes the appearance of rationality in the negotiating situation into more a choice than a necessity. Since the addition of rational techniques to one's possibilities of thinking amounts to a decision to supplement existing capabilities, whatever they might be, with new ones, the real question concerning inclusion of techniques of practical philosophy in negotiations is whether it is better to have the widest range of conceptual tools available in a difficult situation or not. The choice does not seem especially difficult.

The reliability of the simpler logical forms has long been known, and while alternative logical systems have been discussed by philosophers over the past century, there has been very little contention about the validity of inferences within conventional assumptions of two-valued logic. With the assumption that the tools of basic logic are functional in their own limited way, philosophy's center of gravity has moved away from issues of basic logical analysis to analysis of assumptions, appreciation of the properties of different kinds of claims (e.g., factual, normative, performative, etc.), analysis of ideas in context, and the endless interpretations of postmodernism. These concerns are not just new things to talk about, but redefinitions of the parameters of rationality.

Philosophical counseling makes use of both critical and constructive techniques. Some critical techniques relevant to negotiations include:

  • surveying individual beliefs, including their direct implications
  • logical analysis of discourse, including use of modal logic
  • evaluation of analogies
  • evaluation of explanations
  • evaluation of definitions and category specifications

In cross-cultural negotiations, acknowledgment of cultural difference must be seen as a technique, not a sentiment. Before the negotiation of provisions of an agreement begins, there are unique opportunities to stipulate resolutions of conflicting understandings and discover elements of language that may become especially important as the negotiations proceed.

The constructive moment goes beyond analysis and evaluation to propose new principles of thinking and being, thereby opening up new possibilities of imagining relationships among things. Constructive thinking may draw on such diverse sources as ethical theory, metaphysical speculation, or sacred texts. Being able to explore avenues of constructive thinking is especially important in cross-cultural negotiations because images of self and other, which are always important, are much more in flux in these situations. An especially important example is the continuing need to make ethical judgments and even develop new ethical principles in a negotiation process. The individual interests of the parties may not coincide with group interests, for example, or one of the parties may act in a way that it perceives as ethical but the other party does not. The stresses introduced by such ethical problems can easily unravel a negotiation.

There are, then, two levels at which philosophical counseling is relevant to negotiation in general and cross-cultural negotiation in particular. The first, which has commanded the bulk of the attention in this discussion because it is fundamental and arguably the more difficult to comprehend, is a methodological level at which occurs the process of conceptualizing disciplined rational reflection and justifying a commitment to its inclusion of as a component of dealings with one's colleagues and with the parties across the table. The second level is that of method itself, in which specific critical techniques and notions from the history of ideas contribute to deepening understanding of the issues and broadening the scope of possibility for an agreement the parties can live with. This is how philosophy helps open up a space for negotiation.