business meeting target training

What comes first, the coffee or the meeting?

Dealing with different expectations in meetings

mediumHave you ever needed to discuss terms and conditions with international partners? You come in ready to get down to business as quickly as possible, only to discover that the others first want to have some small talk or a coffee before discussing business? You might think to yourself, “Are we here to have a nice time or to do business?”

How we expect a meeting to run and how the meeting really progresses might be very different. We can all face the question, “When are we ready to get down to business?” So how do we find the correct balance between small talk and business? How should we identify what our partners (or participants) expect in advance?

General tips to consider before beginning the meeting

  • Find out about your audience in advance. What might be most important to them?
  • Consider following the cues of others in the meeting. How and when do they ask questions?
  • Think about potential differences in expectations and possible solutions in advance.
  • Know what you want to achieve during the meeting and how you wish to do so. Be aware that the audience might not have the same goals or process in mind.
  • Know both formal and informal phrases for dealing with different expectations.
  • Know when to use the phrases you’ve identified.
  • Notice possible mistakes (i.e. starting too soon, ignoring the other participants’ needs, etc.) and ask for feedback
  • Be aware of the importance of company culture.

Some questions to ask yourself before the meeting

  • What do the meeting participants expect?
  • When should I begin discussing business?
  • Is a formal or an informal tone better?
  • Does my company have any official information I can refer to?
  • Where can I go to find out more information about potential pitfalls?
  • What do I feel is a good balance which will accommodate everyone?
  • Would it be beneficial to receive extra training in this area?

Dealing with expectations in international meetings

When preparing for international meetings, we can take inspiration from the 7 dimensions of culture, as defined by Dr. Fons Trompenaar. They are:

  1. Universalism versus Particularism (Rules versus Relationships)
  2. Individualism versus Communitarianism (The Individual versus The Group)
  3. Specific versus Diffuse (How Far People Get Involved)
  4. Neutral versus Emotional (How People Express Emotions)
  5. Achievement versus Ascription (How People View Status)
  6. Sequential Time versus Synchronous Time (How People Manage Time)
  7. Internal Direction versus Outer Direction (How People Relate to Their Environment)

The area that best relates to our “getting down to business” scenario is the Specific-Diffuse dilemma. Here’s a quick overview* of this dimension:

Dimension Characteristics Strategies
Specific People keep work and personal lives separate. As a result, they believe that relationships don’t have much of an impact on work objectives, and, although good relationships are important, they believe that people can work together without having a good relationship.
  • Be direct and to the point.
  • Focus on people’s objectives before you focus on strengthening relationships.
  • Provide clear instructions, processes, and procedures.
  • Allow people to keep their work and home lives separate.
Diffuse People see an overlap between their work and personal life. They believe that good relationships are vital to meeting business objectives, and that their relationships with others will be the same, whether they are at work or meeting socially. People spend time outside work hours with colleagues and clients.
  • Focus on building a good relationship before you focus on business objectives.
  • Find out as much as you can about the people that you work with and the organizations that you do business with.
  • Be prepared to discuss business on social occasions, and to have personal discussions at work.
  • Try to avoid turning down invitations to social functions.

*Taken from:

You could ask


  • Do functions and roles define relationships with others?
  • Is written communication more important than face-to-face or telephone?
  • Are closed questions more often used than open questions?


  • Do relationships with others define functions and roles?
  • Is the background story or information necessary for understanding specifics?
  • Is it valuable to invest time in getting to know each other directly and personally?

As the saying goes, being well prepared is half the battle

Although it might take a bit more time, considering the questions shown above should help you to be better prepared for meeting situations where individuals have different expectations. If you would like to learn more, have a look at our intercultural seminars or some more of our intercultural blog posts.