How-tos

Ditch the debate tactics when it comes to persuading Japanese colleagues on a course of action

by Rochelle Kopp

Contributing Writer

One question I sometimes hear from non-Japanese who work at Japanese companies is, “How do I convince my Japanese colleagues I’m right?” This can be alternatively phrased as “What are the best ways to argue, negotiate or debate with Japanese people?”

Whenever I’m asked this question, I’m tempted to simply reply, “You can’t” or, rather, “You really shouldn’t.” It’s not that it’s impossible to convince a Japanese person of an idea or course of action, but more that it’s not likely to work if you go about it the way you’ve been taught back home.

For people from many Western countries, solving problems by debating them comes naturally, because that is how they are trained to do it at school. In my case, growing up in the United States, a large part of the English instruction at my junior high and high school was about how to do “persuasive writing” intended to convince the reader of an argument, and most classes were discussion-based.

Many of my friends participated in activities such as debate club and the Model United Nations, which further honed their verbal arguing skills. Meanwhile, speech class was a graduation requirement.

Because everyone around us receives this same kind of education, and uses the spoken word to make their points and get others to see things their way, debate seems like the normal approach to take when we want to persuade someone of something in any manner of situation.

However, Japanese students don’t receive the same training in persuasive communication and thus, in most cases, they are neither accustomed to verbal jousting nor proficient in it. If you are communicating in English, they will also be at a disadvantage in not using their native language. For this reason, many Japanese tell me that they feel out-gunned and outmaneuvered when their non-Japanese colleagues try to debate with them. That’s definitely not the feeling that you want to engender when you’re trying to get someone on your side, as the Japanese person who feels uncomfortable with your persuasion approach is unlikely to be moved — more likely they are just going to feel annoyed or resentful.

In nearly every seminar I give for Japanese workers doing business with people from other cultures, someone will complain that their foreign counterparts are jikoshuchō ga tsuyoi (overly assertive) and describe the weariness they feel when dealing with such people.

Another difficulty of trying to engage the Japanese in debate is that, in Japanese culture, openly disagreeing with someone or pointing out the flaws in their logic can be tantamount to saying, “I don’t like you” or “I don’t respect you.” It has the potential to color, or completely destroy, relationships. As a result, it’s something that people avoid doing.

You also risk being labeled rikutsuppoi (argumentative), which has a very negative connotation. This word suggests being Spock-like, unable to process things from a human perspective and acknowledge the role of feelings.

Show rather than tell

Persuasion in Japanese companies tends to rely less on verbal parrying and more on written documentation. Typically, this is either done via a report or a PowerPoint deck, or both. Information is analyzed and presented in exhaustive detail, and copious visuals are provided, including photos and graphs. You get to make your argument through the written word rather than the spoken word, and you are expected to do so thoroughly, marshalling as many facts as possible to back you up. The Japanese see this method as being easier for people to digest, and it is less likely to be perceived as pushy or annoying.

I recommend paying particular attention to whatever format is typically used for persuasive documents in your organization. Some Japanese companies love PowerPoint presentations filled with complex charts and schematics, others prefer long Word documents. Make sure yours fits in with the norm.

The key is to let the facts speak for themselves. Keep the focus on the data, rather than on how fancy an argument you can make. And, just as Japanese advertisements avoid direct comparison with rival products, it’s best to not discuss why your recommendation is better than others currently being considered by the company, because that just becomes a written version of a debate.

Rather than solely presenting your own logic, it can be helpful to cite others. Look for media coverage, in Japanese if possible, that discusses the same issue or makes the point that you want to make. This will add an additional legitimacy to your point that can make a big difference.

If you do need to discuss

Of course, not everything can be settled in writing. Also, if you don’t discuss things, it’s possible that your carefully prepared document will not get the attention it deserves. Therefore, at some point, discussion may be necessary.

How do Japanese people prefer to approach things when there is a difference of opinion and they want to convince someone of a course of action? Rather than contrasting opposing ideas, Japanese conversations tend to be focused on looking for areas of agreement and building on them. So, rather than trying to pick apart the other person’s ideas and demonstrate the superiority of your own, focus on finding things you agree with and acknowledging those.

The desire to emphasize areas of agreement is one reason why Japanese business communication is so laden with buzzwords — by mentioning commonly held assumptions and recognized trends, it serves to emphasize areas of consensus. Be sure to find out what buzzwords are currently being used as touchstones in your organization, including company-specific ones, and use them liberally.

In terms of conversational strategies, emphasizing agreement means saying more than just “I see your point.” It requires actively demonstrating that you understand the other person’s perspective, including repeating what aspects you agree with and why.

It’s also important to understand why the other person is taking the position that they are. What are they trying to achieve and what do they think is important? What concerns do they have with the approach you are recommending? Ask questions to try to understand their stance. This demonstrates that you respect them and their concerns, and the more you see where they are coming from the better you will be able to suggest win-win solutions that both parties will be comfortable with. (For more on this kind of win-win approach, which I find works well in Japanese work environments, I highly recommend the classic negotiation book “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury).

It is also important to be open to compromise. If you can give an inch somewhere rather than taking a hard line, the person you are working with may return the favor and concede on something that you care about.

Necessary nemawashi

Another important thing to remember is that in most Japanese organizations it’s usually not just one person that you need to convince, but rather a whole group. Getting consensus from everyone involved is key to getting things approved.

The Japanese approach for gaining the necessary consensus is nemawashi, which involves one-on-one or small group discussions with key decision-makers (preceded, of course, by your giving them the written documents described above). These sessions should be just as much for listening to their views as they are for your making your case. Putting the effort into having a good interaction with each stakeholder will get you further than trying to impress everyone with your debating skills. Remember, in Japan it’s often more about the relationship than the logic.

Rochelle Kopp is a management consultant working with Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga.”) You can find her on Twitter at @JapanIntercult.