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Easy on the “I’s”

November 10th, 2009

Recently I attended a corporate meeting and in the dozens of conversations that took place over two days, I took some time to observe the participants. On the surface, they seemed to be having good conversations, with lots of jokes and loud laughter. But their subtexts revealed more. Often they interrupted each other in mid-sentence. Some people seemed not to be listening at all but rather prowling for the small pause that would allow them to take back the floor.  And most of what everyone had to say started with the word I.  They behaved like normal people – like most of us would in a similar situation. Intent on communicating, they never really saw one another’s points of view.

That meeting made me think about my first business trip to Japan.

I was in Tokyo to negotiate the terms of a strategic alliance. I was travelling with a Japanese-American consultant to my organization, who functioned as a liaison and translator. For our first night in Tokyo we stayed in the home of his cousin.  A single woman in her forties, Takayo was a realtor in Tokyo who spoke some English and had studied French.  My Japanese was limited to polite phrases that were useful in passing interactions but not so useful for a true conversation: comments about the weather, where I would be travelling, how long I’d been in Tokyo, yes I liked Japanese food.  We managed to speak a hybrid language of our own over dinner, a mix of deconstructed English with some French thrown in and a little Japanese here and there, spiced with unintentional humor. 

After dinner I reflected on our conversation. And as I thought about what Takayo had told me about herself and asked about me, I realized that rarely had she used the word “I” in speaking to me.  It was as if she had held up a mirror to our conversation.  Only instead of admiring herself in the mirror, she reflected back everything she said in terms of its relevance to me and what I had said. 

We were using the same words but we weren’t really speaking the same language. I was speaking I to You and she was speaking You to You. 

You to You communication is part of Japanese culture and it taught me an important lesson early in my career: relevance is a business essential, regardless of the culture.

Through her interaction with me, Takayo demonstrated that in forming business relationships – whether they are with partners, prospective customers or the Web 2.0 audience that influences perceptions of our brands – responding is more than expressing our own views. It’s listening first and then expressing our views in a way that reflects and incorporates the viewpoints of those on the receiving end.  That’s You to You.  And that’s as relevant in Texas or the digital world as it is in Tokyo.