As the Rethinking Negotiation Teaching conference opened in Beijing today, participants were offered to partake in breakout activities in three tracks aiming to anchor the conference around a local perspective: Chinese law, education in China and Chinese culture.  


I chose to participate in the latter. In this blog, I’ll share a description and some insights from two activities led by Andrew Wei-Min Lee and Feng Ying Yu, directors of Beijing-based Leading Negotiation organization who also teach negotiation in Peking Law School. I’ll also mention how I sallied forth into Beijing to negotiate on the street, and returned to tell the tale.


The first activity Vivian and Andrew led was a tea ceremony. While the ceremony itself was both graciously conducted and a pleasure to participate in, I’ll refrain from making the usual touristy comments about China, tea, ceremonies, etc. Instead, I’ll focus on the conversation we shared as the ceremony developed, with the discussion ranging back and forth between tea and negotiation.


The conversation opened with people sharing their own intuitive associations between the tea ceremony and negotiation: Both are processes involving knowledge, expectations, ritual, rules, pace, non-verbal communication and temperature (whether real or metaphorical). Like negotiation, the tea ceremony is a process accompanying and sometimes underlying many day-to-day interactions - business, family, friends, etc. – with the environment and process adapted to suit for context.


We discussed some direct connections between tea ceremonies and dispute resolution in China: In some areas, a public teahouse is the place where most social interactions take place, the coming-together spot of a village or neighborhood. When disputes emerge between community members, the senior dispute-resolving community figure might invite the disputants to the teahouse for a tea ceremony which might be brief, or might take hours, but which will certainly end with resolution. In other places, where the teahouse is not such a central place, the community figure might invite disputants to a private tea ceremony at his or her home.


Tea ceremonies – which in essence are a framework for the drinking of freshly brewed tea over long periods of time, with all the brewing and pouring activity taking place right there at the table – are often the backdrops to business negotiations. At these ceremonies - which can go on for hours - alertness is facilitated by the caffeine and by the absence of real food – small snacks only. Often, Andrew shared with us, issues are discussed at length over tea but final agreement is reached over Baidu, a particularly potent form of local beer. Apparently, adding alcohol into the mix contributes towards taking the edge off of concessions and saving face. Note to myself: This demands field research.


As the tea ceremony goes on, the tools that are employed throughout it are up-kept. For example, the clay pot in which the red tea was brewed was brushed with a fresh coat of the leftover red tea, to nourish and deepen its color. There seemed to me to be an important lesson on the value of reflectivity and of self-energizing in there, but I’m not yet quite able to frame it into words.


Another interesting aspect of the tea ceremony is the way in which leftover resources are invested in a joint purpose. For example, each family in China has a tea-pet, a cherished member of the family – a clay figurine of a bird or a frog. This family member lives in a bowl, into which leftover water and tea from the ceremony is regularly spilled. Thus nourished by the tea-drinkers, the tea-pet accompanies the family for years, to the extent that the verb for having a tea-pet is the same verb used for raising a child; each family raises a tea-pet. I must pick up a couple of those while I’m here and remember to inform my children –next time they ask me for, say, a horse - that I now have a BATNA.


One thing that stands out is the way the ceremony clears a spot in space and time for relationships to ‘happen’. This is a peaceful environment, with room for appreciation of shared interests, of aesthetics, and of other people’s work. Both parties are in the same room, and have at least this one thing going on in common. It focuses parties on shared community values, before they consider their own specific rift. The act of engaging in the ceremony can serve as an icebreaker between disputing or distant parties. It presents an opportunity for non-verbal exchanges. One can transmit anger in the way one pours the tea, or affection by choosing the other’s favorite blend. The ceremony also provides many opportunities for changing the pace of a negotiation. It is a ‘legitimate’ thing to focus on when one feels the need to take a break, to shake dynamics up, or to overcome emotional hijacking.


These were powerful notions to consider, and led to question of how some of them might be incorporated into negotiation processes, or of how to teach students to weave them into their approach, without scaring the other party off or coming off badly (in a Western culture).


Moving away from the ceremony itself, we discussed negotiation issues pertaining to different elements present in the tea ceremony but not unique to it. For example – the role that sharing food as a relationship-building and a trust-building tool plays in different cultures and in different negotiation contexts. Receiving food or drink from another has status implications which play out differently in different cultures. It also incorporates a degree of vulnerability and of willingness to assume risk – implying an expression of trust.


The second session was on Chinese writing symbols or sinographs. By exploring the way key negotiation and conflict terms are drawn, and tracing back the squiggles and dashes to the original pictures portrayed in these drawings, one can find a wealth of cultural wisdom, baggage and norms. No – we didn’t explore whether the Chinese symbol for crisis and opportunity are really one and the same (or, as Homer S. put it, the symbol forms one word – ‘crisitunity’). However, we learned that the pictogram for ‘forgiveness’ includes symbols representing ‘words’, ‘cooling’ and ‘a knife cutting the horns off a bull’ (while leaving the bull itself unharmed). ‘Meditation’s pictogram includes symbols for ‘tuning’, ‘music’ – and the knife/bull symbol. While I am unable to gain anything more than fairly shallow insights, from these ('look! A bull!'), Andrew and Vivian use these same symbols and their historical development to teach Chinese students about negotiation and conflict in a way that builds off Chinese cultural grasps and approaches to these topics. To Chinese students, we learned, these intricate drawings appear to be pen strokes, dashes and squiggles which they can read and understand – but they are not aware of deeper meanings or implications. Connecting the symbols to these meanings, is one tool they employ to teach their students Chinese negotiation, as opposed to a adopting an imported model.


In addition to the cultural issues raised in discussion, the activity – which included some hands-on attempts as calligraphy on my part, which I am tastefully not going to share with you – also raised pedagogical issues. One issue was the type of full-body, full-attention focus the activity of drawing/writing demands, and how it might be possible to elicit that in students in  negotiation course. Another issue touched on was learning by rote – not a favorite method in negotiation courses in general, but one that might not be without value. To exemplify, when Vivian was complimented on the wonderfully artistic symbols she effortlessly drew, she explained that the starting point for that skill was in the homework she received in school as a child: “go home, and draw this symbol 1500 times”. Thoughts for application, anyone?


Skip to the evening: Feeling rather cooped up in a hotel since arriving in Beijing over a day ago, some friends and I decided we needed some time out and a taste of the city, particularly a taste accompanying some type of liquid. We figured that if we called it adventure learning, a topic receiving much attention at these conferences, we could justify being bleary eyed tomorrow morning. So, indeed, we engaged in ‘Beijing haggling’ over whatever transactions we came across: successfully reducing the taxi fare, and the cover charge in the bar, through negotiation processes in which none of the parties understood a word the other was saying. Total savings: 10 dollars. It sounds better if you think of it in percentages, which I won’t bore you with. Anyway - we were much more pleased by our ability to negotiate our way back to the hotel via the Beijing subway system. Having survived, and written this blog, it’s time to let jet-lag do its thing.




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Comment by Ben Ziegler on May 6, 2011 at 2:54pm

This is fascinating stuff, Noam.  Thanks for sharing your insights (and humor)... So many ideas and notions to explore, and maybe adapt to one's own context.

The use of writing symbols particularly struck a nerve... my own experiences, related to negotiation / con res teaching/training, are that visuals, drawings/symbols... are underutilized (to put it mildly).  Effective symbols/icons offer up metaphor, analogy... and add depth and potential to concepts; e.g., negotiation-related.

Looking forward to more from you from the Middle Kingdom.
Comment by Noam Ebner on May 11, 2011 at 4:30am
I had that same feeling Ben - one good metaphor can trigger a flood of discussion. We experimented not only with visuals, but also with taste and movement. Each provided doors into new conversations. So long, PowerPoint!


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