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Travel, Teach, Live in Japan

What's In Sushi - Unlocking The Secrets Of Working Effectively With Japanese Organizations
By:Yuriko Ryu

Eating sushi is like penetrating the minds of Japanese, according to Director of Culture Dynamics, Lily Lau. “It’s not what you say, but what you don’t say that matters when dealing with Japanese,” says Lau.

“It’s a bit like eating sushi. It looks beautiful and subtle and the first bite can be a real experience. To fully appreciate sushi, one needs to like and acquire the taste,” explains Lau.

“Like that first bite of sushi, communicating with Japanese can be an experience if you don’t take the time to understand differences in cultures. People can quickly become frustrated and many wish taken the time to learn Japanese,” says Lau. Naturally, when you can speak Japanese, it’s a lot easier to get the message through.

Communicating with Japanese

Lau adds she has long wanted to discover how well Japanese communicate, with each other “I wanted to find out if what sometimes appears to be communication failures is actually embedded in Japanese culture, or if it was really a matter of cross-cultural communication difficulties.”

Author of Reading the Mind of Japanese, Robert March, says “Verbal communication is far less important than other (communication) forms to the Japanese. They live in a culture that fosters elegant, standardized human interaction.”

According to Lau, “Among themselves, the Japanese perceive few communication problems, because of the mono-cultural nature of Japan with standardized values and customs. “

Silence, indirect expression, intuitive understanding, use of euphemisms, non-verbal language, and gestures, are regarded by Japanese as the esthetic acts, because they are done with style to effect communication with the minimum of words or effort. “Therefore, to a foreigner what is heard is only a fraction of what is meant, the tip of the meaning iceberg,” says Lau.

And this invisible language of indirect expression can become a source of irritation and confusion for foreigners. Japanese have many ways of indicating “no”, without actually saying so explicitly. ‘That will be difficult’, and ‘I’ll think about it’, are common circumlocutions.

“When Japanese hear these statements, they have a pretty good idea that the answer is definitely “no”, but non-Japanese usually interpret the word “difficult” literally, as meaning inability or incompetence.

“If a non-Japanese tries to assist the Japanese to solve apparent problems of inability or incompetence, confusion and misunderstanding can happen, for the apparent problems do not in fact exist. The word ‘no’ was simply missed by the non-Japanese,” says Lau.

Difficult is a Japanese euphemism for ‘impossible’. Misunderstandings are also likely when a “think about it” response is taken literally as a promise to consider the matter.

“To decipher this invisible Japanese language, one must learn the art of dealing with Japanese and that demands an understanding of the Japanese mind,” explains Lau.

Mind Reading

“An effective tool to help people understand the Japanese mind and see beyond verbal language is Directive Communication™ (DC). DC is a methodology that affects how people act and react in groups and has many elements that allow DC practitioners a greater perception of the Japanese invisible language,” say Lau.

“DC is a foundational science for influencing individual and group dynamics as they relate to productivity and leadership across any discipline within organizations and its application in Japanese owned companies in Malaysia is invaluable. Directive Communication™ is the essence for understanding and developing rapport at the deepest levels of acceptance to create reaction transformation and influence a more enriching and productive work environment,” reiterates Lau.

Hearing the Answers

“An important aspect of DC is the questioning technique using Directive Questioning. Why do you think that questions are important, when most people think they must inform to persuade? Questions provide three important parts of the persuasion process. They are discovery, sincerity and focus. They give you the necessary information to find an appropriate solution to a problem,” says Lau.

“Imagine you are trying to get into a Japanese company to be their supplier for your products. You have given a presentation and you are uncertain of the intention of the Japanese. To avoid the ambiguity of “yes” or “difficult” reply from the Japanese, you should probe further using the three steps DC questioning technique,” continues Lau.

The first part of the persuasion process is discovery. “Your discovery questions could be something like, ‘What specifically do you like my products?’ or ‘What would you consider an ideal supply to your company?’ You can also try to ask, ‘How specifically would you confirm our orders?’ or ‘What would be the one most important criterion in making this happen?’ suggests Lau.

“The above questions set out your discovery to the criteria required. You may have broken the surface and penetrate into a deeper level of communication with the Japanese if your questions are asked correctly,” explains Lau.

“If you think you could not meet the criteria or requirement specified, you probably stop here and end your conversation. If you think the Japanese’ requests meet your requirement, you probe further.”

The second part of the process is sincerity. “You must have sincerity to help people, besides the business and money objectives. Such sincerity must be congruent with the correct vocal tones and body language, otherwise you are doing more harm than good,” explains Lau.

“Your sincerity questions could be something like ‘If I could change the design to the way you wanted, would you…?’, ‘If I could commit to the amount of supply you wanted, would you…?’ or ‘If I could do something to help you to achieve your production, would you…?’ Basically it is your ability to express your sincerity in understanding exactly what your perspective wants in order to fulfill his needs. You may have penetrated into the deeper level of communication with the Japanese when your sincerity is felt,” continues Lau.

“The last and most important part is directing focus which is the ingredient in the Question recipe, simply because in a world where your perceptions are often more important than reality, and where your emotions dictate your satisfaction, your mind create and focus on a possible future and make it happen,” says Lau.

“Your focus questions could be something like, ‘What if I accept your pricing, what quantity of order would you give me?’, ‘What if you discover that my company is reliable and trustworthy, would you consider to try us out?’ or ‘What if we shake hands now, would we have a working relationship with you?’, suggests Lau.

Your presentation may possibly land you with a contract. If you do not get it, it would give you greater insights of the minds of the Japanese and the technique to breaking the barriers in communication with them.

“It certainly resolves your frustration and put you one step ahead of other competitors. I recommend you to be persistent and do your best to establish a working relationship with the Japanese. Who knows the deal will be yours in the long run? “ says Lau.

Being a multi-cultural facilitator and trainer, we practice Directive Questioning and it has proven to be effective in dealing with various groups of people, multi-culturally and cross-culturally.

Communication channels

Tatemae and honne are two distinct channels of verbal communication. They are invariably used in tandem and play a significant role in all areas of Japanese life.

Although difficult to translate accurately, tatemae roughly means “façade” or “face”, is primarily used in reference to masking one’s real thought or intentions. It is the formal or official communication. Honne, on the other hand, literally means “honest voice” and refers to one’s real intention.

In many social and political contexts, these contrasting principles are used to conceal the truth or reality of situation that might be inconvenient or embarrassing to acknowledge publicly.

In business, the tatemae / honne factor is used primarily to conceal some kind of failure and secondarily to camouflage intentions that might prove disadvantageous if done openly.

This kind of behavior is, of course, common in most societies, but in Japan it has been raised to a fine art and is an institutionalized aspect of typical Japanese behavior that exists in all relationships.

Foreigners frequently get into trouble when dealing with them and never knew the truth. To overcome the tatemae / honne tactic, one requires personal antennae that are sharply attuned to the nuances of the Japanese behavior.

Yuriko Ryu

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