For several years, I worked for a Japanese television distribution company and in the beginning when I was in meetings with Japanese managers, they would continually say “Ah so” and nod their heads to whatever I or anyone else said in that meeting. I assumed it meant that they were agreeing with me or could really see my point and were accepting my opinion.
At the end of one particular meeting where they were “ah so-ing” me a lot and I believed they were going to go my way on the issue we were discussing, I was surprised when the boss made a decision to take the project in a direction that was exactly the opposite of what I was advocating.
Afterward, I asked one of the other Americans who worked at the company what was going on, “They were all with ahso-ing me and then this?! I’m not getting something here!” He told me that most of the people who were at the table didn’t speak English very well and they probably didn’t understand what I was saying. The meaning of “Ah so” in this context is not “I agree” or even “you have a valid point but I disagree” but simply “I see your lips moving.”
It’s amazing, though, how a simple nod and a “yes” can make people feel like you’re engaged and possibly even agreeing when all you’re really doing is listening.
I’m not an expert by any means on Japan or Japanese culture but I see many things to be learned from Japanese business, especially the concept of “wa” which means, as I understand it “harmony”. It’s the basis of working on teams in Japan. No one wants to express strong individualism or strong opinions. A strongly worded opinion may very well alienate others on the team. Opinions, especially if it involves disagreement, must be stated in a very indirect way, otherwise it will offend. I know I found this extremely frustrating. “What the hell do these people want?!” I would often say to myself and my American colleagues.
This is in a sense true of simple acknowledgment. People want to be heard. You’re not necessarily agreeing, you’re simply exploring the issue with them. For that moment, you have no opinion or other vested interest. Geeks are experts, they have opinions about most things. To not have an opinion in any given situation is hard. But, therein lies the power.
It’s a complete contrast to the way I was brought up which was to not only state your opinion, but to argue for it. Debate and winning the debate was key, at least in my family. So really listening, without offering an opinion, either disagreeing or agreeing, is completely counter to everything I know.
I’ve witnessed many meetings with engineers who are fighting house-to-house for their point of view on a given topic. Because geeks are so thoughtful and so focused, often their arguments are one-way. They’re not really listening and putting ideas together. But a great deal of time is wasted in strenuous debate, especially when tempers flare and folks get frustrated. Yes, there is a place for debate and often strenuous yet respectful debate leads to solutions but debate is often adversarial. Simply listening and acknowledging allows ideas to flow more freely.