Are you working in Japan and finding it difficult to get your ideas across?
I have been living and working in Japan for over 15 years. To be honest, every time I think I understand Japanese culture and how to communicate in a business meeting, something usually happens that I can’t seem to understand! Even just yesterday I was in a meeting and was amazed by how the meeting progressed with twists and turns that I could only try to grasp on the surface.
Every situation is likely to be a little bit different, so you do need to be able to “read the air”, but there are 3 essential communication tips that I have found can usually steer me through most business-related conversations and help to get my ideas across.
- Patience – It is extremely important to always be patient. NEVER talk over the other person while they are speaking. Always make an effort to wait for them to finish their sentence. Some international people feel that when there is a pause in the conversation that this is their chance to push their point again. But it is often the opposite in Japan. The pause is a time to think and reflect on what each person has said. Try to use this “listening time” to try to read the air, and think about some deeper meaning that the Japanese person may be trying to convey. It may be hard at first, but after some practice you will find that this will help your communication in Japan and will contribute to a smoother, calmer business meeting. (Oh and one more point about patience – it is extremely unlikely that you will ever get an approval in the first meeting in Japan. It always takes at least 3-4 meetings to get even to the first step! But this is an important process to go through, so don’t give up! If your business client or manager is interested in your idea, they will usually agree to meet with you again to listen to more of your proposal, so this is your chance to explain again or perhaps receive more feedback from them in order to improve your proposal.)
- Logic – Always try to explain the logic behind your proposal. If you are the leader of the meeting, first of all state the purpose of the meeting. Exactly what do you want to achieve at the end of the meeting? What is the agenda? If you have a business proposal, start by explaining the big vision, purpose, objective, KPIs, and then trickle down to explaining the options and pros and cons for achieving the objectives. At each step, try to explain your thoughts and the reasons for your recommendation. If you take the time to explain each step of your logic, I guarantee this will help to get your ideas across in the meeting and more likely to receive agreement or approval.
- Visualization – Simply talking the whole time during a meeting is never a good idea in Japan. If there is a white board, utilize it! And if there is no white board, then use your notepad. In my experience it is ALWAYS important to draw a diagram or table to help explain what you are trying to say. Diagrams and tables not only make the concepts easier to understand, but it helps people to understand your thought process and more likely to achieve the purpose of the meeting.
Note: Please note that these points are based on my experience living and working in Japan. The first 5 years were at Tsukuba University. I was a PhD student working in a research lab where nobody except my Professor could speak English, so I was completely surrounded by the Japanese language and culture. It was tough at first, but I learned to be grateful for this experience as it became the basis for my Japanese language skills and deep introduction to Japanese culture and how to communicate politely and respectfully with your superiors. After I graduated, I have been working in Tokyo and every day I am continually learning something new or gaining a deeper perspective into the Japanese business culture. It is definitely interesting and keeps you thinking and always questioning yourself!