I’m always working as “someone in the middle”. Whether it’s for my full-time job in a trading company, or for my personal project of organizing music events at my favorite bar, the most part of my job is to be in the middle, and to work with people on the both sides cooperatively.
As I wrote before, I am working as a sales for a Japanese trading company, which imports industrial machines mainly from Europe, and sell them to Japanese users – manufacturers, labs, R&D and etc.
For that job I need to understand the situations, needs, and goals of the both sides – European manufacturers and Japanese customers – and figure out how we all can proceed the project together.
I’m also working as a music event organizer of a bar my friends are running in a cozy, beautiful city in Japan, Kobe. The bar is quite cool and unique because that’s where people from all around the world gather. It’s sometimes called “international bar”, because both the staffs and the customers are pretty international.
I coordinate live shows of local, talented musicians, hoping that will give them opportunities to be recognized not only by Japanese people but also by people from overseas, and also that the customers will experience what is really going on in the music scene in Kobe.
For this project, I need to work with the bar staffs, who speak in English and have (mostly) Western background, and the musicians, who speak in Japanese and have (mostly) Japanese background. I work with the both sides throughout the process of event coordinating – from planning, booking, advertising, preparing, to actually running the events.
So far my music projects are going well. I enjoy everything I do, and at each event, I can feel we are actually making a progress, and that people are having a good time. On the other hand, I have been having a little hard time because of my full-time job for the past a few months. I was feeling that I am stuck with its complicated, unfulfilling difficulties.
I was struggling because the manufactures and the users often have completely different values and opinions about their projects, and we could not find a good way to solve the conflicts. Both of them were reluctant to make any concessions and just kept asking the other side to compromise. That happens for various reasons – sometimes because of their policies, brands, and principles, and sometimes because of the strict rules, systems, and “how things work” in big companies.
I was completely stuck in a dilemma. No matter how hard I worked, I could not find a way to move the project forward.
I even started wondering why I ever dreamed about “working globally” or “building a bridge between Japan and overseas”, and I was about to regret that.
However, one day I suddenly realized. “I’ve been thinking that I am working hard, but am I really? Maybe not – I feel like I am just being a carrier pigeon!”
Because, when I was caught in a dilemma, my inner voice was just like this; “They want this, but the other side wants that… There is no way to satisfy both of them unless they compromise! But they never will… What more can I do to make them understand each other? I already told them everything what the other said, I forwarded all the necessary information correctly – I thought I did everything I could!”
However, this point of view I always had, was a little off. With this perspective, what I was trying to do was passing on the messages – telling one side what the other side is thinking – and expecting them to understand, and to make concessions harmoniously. But that is not really what I was there for. My job was not to be a messenger.
When you are in the middle of groups of people, if there is a language barrier between them, you might be needed and valued simply by translating. Don’t get me wrong, translation itself is a very important and valuable job for sure!
However, I am not working as a translator. I am not an expert of languages, and I cannot interpret beautifully. I am just someone “working in the middle”. I should never be satisfied by converting one language to another.
What I really need to do is to understand the situations, characteristics, preferences, and goals of each side. And based on my understandings, I need to expect the reactions to and outcomes of whatever going to happen in the future, and anticipate, work one step ahead, before problems occur – so that all of us can work together smoothly and achieve the goals.
Something very important that I tend to forget is, that pure translation might not interpret properly or sufficiently. No matter how precise I could translate, people might not understand what the other side really wants to say, when people have different cultural backgrounds, or values. When people have different perspectives and understandings about each situation, what and how much people can understand from the same message could be very different. That is why – at least for my job – translating might not be enough.
As someone working in the middle, it is crucial to be aware that simply translating word to word cannot deliver the real message, and to think about what we can do to tune the message so that it can deliver the true meaning and intention it really contains.
Yes, behind each message, there is an intention. Whatever they want me to tell people on the other side, they say it because they have purpose. My important role is to understand the purpose and deliver the message in the way people on the other side also understand, and take actions based on it.
In short, translation is not enough – and another very important thing is, concession is not the only way.
When you are working in the middle, you are the person who can find the right destination where the both sides can be satisfied as mush as possible, and lead everyone to get there together.
So the next question is – how can we find the right destination? Because things can work in the completely different ways, depending on the goal you set.
I might have found a compass which I can use to find the destination. Now I am saying “might have found”, because this is still something new to me, and I am yet to try and discover whether this compass is right or not.
The compass is; always aim for a win-win.
This may sound too simple. You might feel a little dissappointed. But re-recognizing the importance of win-win is unexpectedly refreshing and helpful when you are stuck in a complicated projects and negotiation processes.
Also, we are talking about business here. Win-win is not the only way. People can seek their own success and interest and put others aside. That is also one way to do business. But personally, I do not want to choose that way, even if I could – because that cannot be a sustainable way.
Any relationship – whether you are working as a team, with a partner, or collaborating with other companies – will never last, and cannot reach its full potential, unless it’s a win-win relationship.
We work with other people, because we cannot do it alone. We can double, or triple our potentials, when we work with someone different from you. But if someone in that relationship has to tolerate unreasonable or unfair situation, that relationship is killing all the perks of working with other people.
So we need to always check our relationships carefully. Is there anyone who has too much burden? Is there anyone who is sacrificing unreasonably? Is this fair to the both sides? Am I pushing my own opinion too hard? – And we try as much as possible to build a win-win relation ship. If there is something wrong, start fixing it immediately, even before somebody asks you to do that.
The reason why you should be careful about unfair relationship and should fix it as soon as you can, is because for most people, telling something negative to someone is very daunting. People tend to avoid telling you the negative truth, but instead, just silently walk away.
In that way, unfair relationships have so much risks. We need to work hard to figure out the way where we do not need to focus on concessions. We need to be creative.
What is creative and what is not?
What is not creative is just sharing what is already there. It is easy to share what you already have, because it is simple. The only thing you need to think about is the ratio of what each side will get. But as much as it is easy, it is also very dangerous. You might get stuck very easily, when there is not enough resource or profits to share.
Let’s say you could get only 60% of the profits you originally wanted to get from the project. If you can think about nothing but concessions, there is no way you can get both sides satisfied. Will you give one side the amount of profit you originally planned, and give only 20% to the other? Will you just give them the half to each side, to make it fair?
Instead, we need to be creative.
“We only have 60% of what we wanted, so can we try this to make the extra profit, so that we can share and fill the gap?”
“You can get as much as you originally aimed for, but if we do that they will get less. Remember that they are having a hard time about their distribution, and I know you are experienced and great at it. Do you think you can help them to solve that problem?”
If you find that someone is sacrificing, you don’t try to make others to sacrifice too, to make it look like fair. If you do that, you are simplifying it too much. You are not really thinking.
What you need to think about is not how others should sacrifice too, but what you can do to make the extra value, or how you can reduce the burden that already exists.
As a person working for the both sides, whenever we are about to get unexpected and unsatisfying result, I need to be creative enough to come up with ideas that can fill the gap between the plan and reality, or that can even create an extra value. These examples above are just what I can come up with right now, so they might not be creative enough.
My new goal is to become someone who can be smart and resourceful enough to think of the alternative or additional solutions in such emergencies.
I want people around me to be happy – not just family and friends, but also people who I work with. I might be too optimistic or idealistic, but I really want every relationship I have to be something everyone wants to say “Thank you!” to each other with a big smile and actually mean it. And I want to think of what I can do to make it happen.
That is my goal, as someone working in the middle.
When you are caught in a dilemma, think this way; it could be a chance for you to create something a lot better than what you can get just by making concessions. You can be creative to take everyone out of the dilemma, and lead them to the destination – where both sides can be more than satisfied – that we all had never even thought about at the beginning.
I know all of this is pretty vague. It is really easier said than done. From now on I have to start thinking about what specifically I can do to realize these goals – and that could be very difficult.
But at the same time, it will be the most interesting, exciting, and worthwhile thing to work on.
And of course, if I find something in that journey, I will write a blog post about it and share that with you!