Face Negotiation Theory in Action

Face Negotiation TheoryLet’s take a deeper look into Face Negotiation Theory. Have you ever been in a negotiation or conversation with someone where you suddenly notice yourself taking on a defensive stance to protect yourself? Maybe you have been more willing to give in a negotiation to help the other person or preserve what you believe the other person thinks of you. Possibly you react strongly to stop what you feel is an encroachment on the other person’s interest or on your interests or needs.  Any of these reactions are completely natural reactions to conversations where there is something to gain and something to lose.

For most people in the Western Hemisphere, this idea would be known as reputation—the way you are known in the community and to the people around you. However, in different cultures, the way people present themselves and react to others is known as a face.

The concept of “face” can often be difficult for those of us who have grown up in cultures that do not value collective respect as highly to understand.  Dr. Ting-Toomey calls these cultures small power distance cultures. Yet the implications that face negotiation theory may have on conflict resolution can make or break the negotiations. Like any other cultural consideration in conflict styles, face must be considered when it will affect how one or all parties negotiate.

Therefore, it is imperative for mediators and negotiators alike to be well-versed in the concept and have a skill set to navigate a conflict when the dispute involves separate understandings of respect and reputation.

This article will examine the idea of the face and the neutral’s role in the preservation of the face in negotiations.  First, this article will define the face and outline some of the theories on the intersection of face and mediation or negotiation.  The article will also present ideas for preventative, supportive, and corrective facework to preserve negotiation space from face-threatening statements.  It seeks to be a resource for people dealing with all aspects of the face and to bring attention to the issues associated with “face”.

A Definition of Face

Mediator John Ng defines faces as “the social images that individuals would like to preserve for themselves.”  It is a combination of reputation, social standing, dignity, honor, and social standing. In contrast to reputation, the concept of face focuses on the relation of the person and their standing among their peers, family members, and community rather than on how one presents themselves and is known.  It is a way that theorists have developed for explaining conflict styles in a collectivist culture. It is a way to acknowledge cultural differences in conflict management style.

The focus of face is on the community, and when one person in a community gains more self-worth, it can lift the community as a whole.  The concept of the face will affect business decisions, social and personal advancement, technology, communication management, and conflict resolution. Due to the way that it intersects with nearly every aspect of life, but particularly with the way conflict and negotiations are handled, dispute resolution experts need to understand this important dynamic that will likely come into play while negotiating for clients.

One loses face when they experience a threat to themself.  It can come from shame, embarrassment, or the acknowledgment of error.  Additionally, others may cause someone to lose face when they deny their courtesy or polite offer or if they violate their honor by refusing them in public. Because face revolves around the idea of the community individually and collectively achieving and maintaining honor, the face will be harshly threatened when one member of the community faces embarrassment or shame.

The face is a cooperative process, in which each person creates their own identity and sustains it while also helping others preserve their own identities.  Therefore, when interpersonal conflict arises in a group, one or more people have likely lost face as a result of the interaction, which may pose several issues in a negotiation or other forms of conversation.  The person who has lost face may feel that they need to retaliate and take a blow at the other party.

They may also be overwhelmed by embarrassment or shame, which will likely hamper their involvement in the negotiation conflict communication process. By finding ways to work through the loss of face aids the resolution of the conflict and helps further communications.

Face Negotiation Theory: The Four Faces

A common theory of face and its role in negotiations is the Face Negotiation Theory by Dr. Stella Ting-Toomey.  The face negotiation theory asserts that two aspects affect the intersection of face and negotiation.  The first is when the face is threatened, and the second where the face is honored.  When the face is honored, the sides communicate with respect to the person’s conflict of interest and the negotiation ends in equity. When the face is threatened, there must be considerations to restore the person’s face as the negations move forward.

The theory also relies on seven basic assumptions about-face, which relies on cultural expectations and cultural difference. Face negotiation theory asserts that there are four theories of how “face” is asserted in negotiations.

Face negotiation theory is most prevalent in Eastern countries with collectivist cultures which are large power distance cultures, which focus on the rank of societal members and the distances between them. Collectivist culture focuses on the relationships that exist between members of the community and mutual face concern. This is contrasted by individualistic culture, with is a small power distance culture, Individualist culture tends to use more emotionally expressive conflict styles and focus on what is the best thing for each person. Individualistic cultures tend to use more aggressive tactics in negotiation.

The Seven Assumptions

The Seven Assumptions of the Face Negotiation Theory outline the assumptions of the theory that determine conflict communication styles and the reactions to the conflict situation altogether. The Seven Assumptions are:

  1. People in all cultures try to maintain and negotiate face in all communication situations.
  2. The concept of “face” is especially problematic in vulnerable interpersonal situations when the situated identities of the communicators are called into question.
  3. The cultural variability dimension of individualism-collectivism influences members’ selection of self-oriented facework behaviors and/or other-oriented facework behaviors.
  4. The cultural variability dimension of power distance influences members’ assertion of power resources in different cultures.
  5. Individualism-collectivism influences members’ selection of autonomy-based facework and approval-based facework.
  6. Small and large power distance influences members’ preference for horizontal versus vertical facework interaction.
  7. Individualism-collectivism and power distance in conjunction with other individuals, identity, relational, situation, and conflict salience factors, influence the use of various facework behaviors in intergroup and interpersonal encounters.

The Four Faces:

The first consideration is that there is positive and negative face.  A negative face is a need for autonomy, where one seeks to preserve either their own freedom or the freedom of others.  Positive face is the preservation of inclusion and approval in the larger community, either for themselves or for others. These frameworks can further be divided based on whether the need is focused on the self or others.

This is often somewhat dependent on the individualistic culture. Individualistic cultures tend to focus on the self, while collectivist cultures focus on the needs of others. Dr. Ting-Toomey’s theory divides face needs into the four faces of face—face-restoration, face-saving, face-giving, and face assertion.

  • Face-Restoration:

Face restoration is also known as self-autonomy or self-face and focuses on the need to protect one’s freedom.  When someone is operating out of this face, they will disclose little information unless there is something in it for them.  This is most present in dominating conflict styles. The main focus is protecting themselves from infringement on their freedom and autonomy.

  • Face-Saving

Face-saving is the desire to preserve someone else’s autonomy and protect the face of the other.  It most often occurs when the parties have some sort of relationship that they would like to preserve after the negotiation and often occurs in family disputes.  It often results when the party has some concern for the other’s face and may result in the party withholding information that they know would be offensive to the other.

  • Face-Assertion

While face restoration focuses on one’s freedom, face assertion focuses on the need for one to be included in the larger community and be a part of the whole.  It will often result in this party making themselves look better and others looking bad.  However, they will achieve this by being the more reasonable party and being agreeable.

  • Face-Giving

Face-giving focuses on the other’s need to be a part of the community as a whole and focuses on the other’s needs. This type of negotiation will focus on including others in their negotiations and will often bring in other parties.  Again, this often happens in family disputes or where the adversarial parties know each other and would like to maintain a relationship.

These theories of the face will be helpful for a neutral to begin to find ways to protect “face” within a negotiation.  When a neutral can determine how each party is responding to face negotiations, they will be able to shape the negotiation to protect the interests of the parties and their face while also encouraging the negotiation to continue to move forward.

Three Styles of Facework as Conflict Management Styles

Dr. Ting-Toomey defines facework as “a set of communicative behaviors that people use to regulate their social dignity and to support or challenge the other’s social dignity.”  Three main styles of facework may be practiced by a neutral during negotiations to help remove any threats to face that may exist.

  • Preventative Facework Conflict Style

This strategy of facework focuses on preventing conflict that will cause one party to lose face by decreasing the threats to face that the parties may experience.  This is often the responsibility of the neutral to prepare for potential conflicts and to be proactive about avoiding them.  It works best when the mediator is aware of the potential for conflict beforehand.

The neutral needs to explain the goal of the negotiations and encourage the parties to avoid topics or statements that may threaten “face”.  Neutrals will need to encourage the parties that changing their mind can be helpful and a sign of growth and to avoid major topics of concern. This is best done by encouraging empathy and using qualifiers or disclaimers to clarify positions. The focus here is to create a space where the parties are comfortable with each other and the mediator to avoid risking an affront to the face.

  • Supportive Facework Conflict Style

This strategy relies on the parties to treat each other civilly and peacefully to preserve face on both sides by focusing on mutual respect, security, and value.  This means that one person’s position is not valued more than the other and sees the other’s self-image and face with the same care that involves high concern. It is born out of a desire for mutual face protection.

This is best when the parties already have some sense of respect for one another and would like to see the other succeed. This style should be used conservatively and should only be used when the parties are equal and there is not a more assertive and more conforming party because the power dynamics and use of face negotiation are closely related. Even with the best intentions, cultural norms from opposing parties can impact the conflict and harm one person’s face or person’s feelings.

  • Corrective Facework Conflict Style

This strategy occurs after something has occurred between the parties that threaten face and will effectively move the parties away from the conflict and save the parties from losing control of the negotiation.  This strategy relies on both the parties and the neutral to acknowledge the mistakes and to move forward in a way that will help everyone involved. This can include the parties offering explanations, checking perceptions, and apologizing for mistakes.

This strategy focuses on restoring respect between the parties and encouraging them to move forward. By having the neutral manage communication and foster emotional expression without harming the reputation or face of either party, there can be a positive response and can help the parties save face in what started as a harmful attack on either party.

Finding creative conflict styles that help negotiations continue when the face is threatened is important, but restoring the respect and mutual face of each party is more important when “face” is at issue.  This may sometimes mean that the negotiations are called off because the parties are not able to continue with the same amount of respect they started with.  The ability to continue a negotiation or choose to end negotiations is likely the most important role a neutral may have in situations that involve face concerns or threats to face.


The face is an important aspect of human communication and negotiations, especially in culturally diverse negotiations and mediation.  Understanding the definition of the different communication theories of the face and the impacts that it may have on the negotiation will help neutrals take control of the negotiation and ensure that the parties are protected as they move forward. It is important to understand the definition of the face and theories surrounding the role of the face in negotiations for a neutral to implement strategies to create an understanding between the parties or recover from a mistake that threatens “face”.

Neutrals may use a variety of strategies to encourage the parties to move through negotiation while preserving face.  This includes work before the face is threatened, while the face may be threatened, and after the face is threatened.  Knowing how to respond is important, but understanding the Face Negotiation Theory and the relationship between the parties allows the neutral to fully support the parties in their decision-making in this negotiation and beyond.

To learn more about face negotiation theory and other alternative dispute resolution theories, check out ADR’s blog here!

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