Leaders often speak of the need to improve “communication” ─ perhaps for influence or alignment ─ possibly within their team, with co-workers across cultures, or even in their home-life.  With so many skills and styles involved in such a multi-faceted area, let me share one aspect I learned about first-hand that will immediately improve your communication with everyone.

Silence truly is Golden: Having lived in Japan for many years, I learned about listening carefully through the use of “ma,” which denotes a pause or silence in a conversation between two or more people.

“Ma” is a Japanese character that roughly means: space, room, or an interval. It relates to all of life itself: the time and space where light and energy emerge. It is often incorporated in traditional arts like calligraphy and ikebana (floral arranging) when thinking about “negative space” is paramount. Think of it as the silence between the notes that create the music. This space and time to grow directly enhance how we engage with the world and those around us.

In conversation, “ma” appears as silence, or a moment of silence ─ which of course, makes most Americans incredibly uncomfortable in almost any conversation, but especially at work.

For sure, it is a notable feature of how Japanese learn how to communicate in Japanese. And the notion carries over to when Japanese speak in English or any other foreign language. As you can imagine, getting used to this takes most foreigners living in Japan a lot of time.

For me, it was a unique time to be seldom interrupted and observe how carefully people were paying attention to my words. Even the slightest “downtime” gave me the impression, over time, that the listener was carefully considering the content of my message. I began thinking about how I wanted to adopt this quality in my own communication pattern and show up in front of others as an excellent listener.

The point was brought home further to me when I accompanied a Japanese client to a business meeting with U.S. executives in New York. As the conversation ensued, with someone from the American team chiming in immediately after anyone’s thought ended – especially after any remark my client made ─  my client leaned over to me and whispered in my ear: “Is anyone really hearing what I’m saying?” To him, not sensing any “ma,” there was basically lots of talking and very little listening if any at all. That moment was not the time to discuss a clash of cultural priorities and would wait until he and I had more time to talk.

Try offering some “ma” – even for a nanosecond ─ the next time you’re conversing with people from Japan – or, for that matter, anywhere else!

There’s a lesson from thousands of years ago in the Chinese character (romanized as “ting”) that embodies the essence and spirit of what true listening is. The symbols contain the elements of ear, king, ten, eyes, one, and heart. That is, listening with the ear of a king, focusing as though we are bestowed with ten eyes, and bringing our undivided attention (one + heart) ─ listening with all emotions at work ─ hearing, seeing, and feeling. In doing this, you show you value someone so much that you would expend this much energy.

Observe how you “listen” in your next conversation ─ and then try a little “ma” or “ting.”