Meeting with a group of Japanese

Conference, meetings, workshops with many participants proceed differently between foreign capital companies and Japanese companies (excluding Sony and a few other westernized companies) in Japan.

With foreign captial companies, they are used to western way of communicating. Most of the people try to respond to any question in speedy manner. In that sense, people in Japanese companies “try” too. But the blank, silent moment waiting for these people to respond is excrutiating.

I’ve recently had that situation in teleconferencing. I’ve tried to create space for one of the key Japanese participant to make a comment, but the US side could not tolerate the silence for more than a few seconds. The tolerance level differs by person, of course. Some Americans are very good at giving space (giving a minute, even two for response!), but majority are not.

I remember a feedback given to me by my workshop partner a year ago that he wanted to have more “ma” (space) for response. At that time, I was shocked because I thought I was giving him more than enough time for response.

Then in a recent meeting outside of Tokyo in a very Japanese company, I witnessed something amazing. It was a presentation given by their colleague in other branch, and there were about 80 attendants. After the presentation, he delcaired that instead of simple Q&A, he wanted to have open discussion. I froze. No, not these people! Managers sitting sparcely in the three front row. Staff sitting tightly packed in back of the room. They couldn’t see or hear the presentation well. How could there be a discussion?

In the beginning, after a long minute, some managers made comments. The place seemed DEAD to me. But the presentator calmly waited, making eye contact with the participants. Then although at about 1/50 of the intensity and speed, the staff started making comments. In the end, some very good points were aired out, big progress was made.

If it was me, I would never have been able to draw out any thoughts out of the participants. I would not have had the nerve to ride out the silent moments. But now that I have experienced it, I can do it.

The lesson learned: Stay calm and confident, and make silence my friend during Q&A session in a Japanese company.

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