These Japanese words for space can change the way you lead

Where Does a Conversation Happen?

What is the medium for the conversation…and does it support the conversation you want to have happen?

All the other elements of a conversation converge in one place: the interface for that conversation. (Learn more about the other elements of the Conversation OS Canvas here)

The interface can be physical. The interface of regular, everyday conversations is the air we breathe. We vibrate that air with our vocal cords, those vibrations strike our ears and we convert those patterns to sounds, sounds to language.

The interface can be digital. We also communicate through texts, emails, Facebook, Slack, Twitter. Some of these interfaces are more conducive to dynamic communication than others. Others are better for focused interactions.

Each of us has habits and preferences for where we’d like a conversation to take place. Who hasn’t gotten annoyed with someone for calling when a simple text would suffice? Who hasn’t judged someone for sending a text when a call was appropriate?

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These ideas are extracted from my recent book, Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter. You can find free chapters and downloads here.

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A Tale of Two Spaces

I was running a working session some time ago with a team, and they’d set up the room in a traditional boardroom-meets-classroom configuration.

What does the space at left say to you? With a screen at one end and everyone facing the center, the space was about focused listening. But we were there to collaborate!

So, during the break, I rotated the center table, creating the space in the diagram at right. Coming back from the break, people stopped in their tracks. The room had changed: they could feel it. What had I changed, they asked?

I had made the space more relational, more inherently collaborative, inviting people to connect with one another more intimately. That relational quality was felt before it was seen.

In the Japanese conception, an empty room can be full of qualities and potential. There are four concepts for space in the Japanese language, which are useful to think about when designing a conversational space.

The Four Qualities of Interfaces

Relational Space

In the example above, I shifted the relational quality of the space. If a room is too small or too noisy, or too big or too quiet — it might hinder the kind of relationships that can form. This is called Wa.

If you’ve ever seen the first Batman movie, you might remember the “super-long dining table” scene…even if you haven’t, you’ve seen the trope before. It’s funny because an intimate dinner for two just needs a smaller, more intimate table.

can you please pass the salt?

Knowledge Capacity

Air is a conveniently handy interface for conversations, but the conversation fades without leaving a mark. Whiteboards and sticky notes are more durable interfaces for conversation, and so they help increase knowledge capacity or the bandwidth of a space. This is called Ba. Seating teams together in a rooms with walls, where they can leave ideas up and add to them over time can also increase Ba.

Place as Space

Going to a remote location can help focus a discussion or make it challenging to attend. In this model, a building can’t be in Tokyo without Tokyo being in the building. Place is space. This quality of space is called Tokoro. This is what real-estate brokers are talking about when they use the phrase “Location, location, location.”

A few years ago I hosted a workshop at a lovely space on the grounds of an art museum. The room was octagonal, with large windows looking out on sculptures and elegant trees. This was not some dingy office cube with fuzzy walls. The space told people something about the event, instantly.

Negative Space

Packing things together can mean no space to move or wander. Negative space, or Ma, allows silence and openness between things and events.

An architect friend of mine told me that this concept is taught as “the space between the stones” …in a conversation, Ma can be the space between breaths or turns taken.

Recently, I put together a virtual, 3-session deep dive on a critical set of tools and skills for a large retail concern. At the last minute, my client informed me that the CEO would be stopping by for “5–10 minutes tops”…they wanted to encourage this initiative and share their stamp of approval on the initiative — this training was the first of many to come. My client assured me that since the CEO was making a bunch of media appearances around a recent big product announcement, they wouldn’t stay long.

The CEO spoke for 15 minutes…then decided to take questions! It was 30 minutes later that they dropped off.

I was slightly panicked as 10 minutes stretched to 20. I looked over the last hour of my agenda. What could I remove? What could I shorten? Luckily, I always add a fair amount of Ma to my agendas so the process wasn’t agonizing…but it wasn’t painless. Going into a session with Ma to spare is always a safer place to be.

Taking something out of your agenda is the best and easiest rule of thumb. It will always be possible to add more later. And the space and time that Ma opens up can be transformative. Planning for emptiness is a paradox, to be sure…but one we all must solve if we want teams to do deeper work.

Negative Space is a huge opportunity

While Ma is impossible to “see” is can be the most impactful way to shift the spaces you create. You can “add” more negative space by creating moments of silence and reflection in your meetings and workshops. Another is by removing activities and not packing the agenda too tightly.

In my coaching work, I’ve increased the negative space by meeting with people for 2 hours. The standard hour put too much pressure on our conversations…increasing the time we had allowed the conversation to drift and deepen and find a center.

Change the Interface to Change the Conversation

Interfaces have a bandwidth, the amount of information they can support (or Ba in Japanese parlance.) Texting is a “skinny pipe,” sending only a single dimension of data (words) in chunks. Reality is a “fat pipe” that throws a broad band of data at us all at once. Tone, body language — even scent! All of those “channels” sent at once can help us read a situation.

Changing the interface changes the conversation. If a text interchange gets stuck, switching to a phone call can help. If that fails, asking for a face-to-face meeting can smooth things over. More information and lower latency in the interface can help bridge misunderstandings.

With air as our interface, each moment of the conversation slips away with only our brains to hold it all together. We can design our conversational interfaces to support different modes, enhancing our communication. One way is to make the interface “sticky.” A whiteboard or actual sticky notes make our conversations more visible, durable and flexible. These surfaces create more intersections for communication, turning our spaces into super-fat interfaces.

I’ve been having dinner with a group of people Sunday evenings for several years. At first, the interface for our conversation was at the corner of Elizabeth and Houston, at a bar called Jo’s. At some point, someone started a group chat. That channel created a second interface for our conversations, allowing us to meet more frequently and deepen our connections…and go drinking more often.

How can an additional interface enhance your communications?

What conversation do you want to shift?

Interface is at the center of my Conversation OS Canvas because it’s the place where all of the conversational elements intersect and interact.

One of the easiest ways to change your conversations is to change where they happen and the tools you use. Buying whiteboards, sharpies and sticky notes won’t fix anything overnight, but shifting tools can shift communication. Adding an additional interface can help cultivate shared understanding.

Think about your own Conversation OS. Where do you feel comfortable holding conversations? Are your chosen spaces supporting your communication goals?

Think about a critical conversation you want to shift.

How can you rethink the interface of the conversation? Which of the four interface qualities could shift the conversation?

Learn more about these ideas in my book Good Talk: How To Design Conversations That Matter. You can download a few free chapters here and find links to buy the audio book and physical books online.

Host of theconversationfactory.com and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.

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