clarifying the purpose of a meeting



This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese.


One of the things that non-Japanese find frustrating when they hold meetings with Japanese is that, in many cases, the purpose for the meeting is not made clear in advance. A meeting is called, but the objective of the meeting is not specified. This leads to wasted time and frustration. 

From a traditional Japanese perspective, due to the emphasis on group work, it may not seem necessary to have a clear purpose for every meeting – just getting people together is seen as useful in and of itself. However, from a western perspective, work is what happens when people are at their desks deep in thought, and time spent in meetings can be a distraction. Thus, a meeting can be viewed as a waste of time if its purpose is not clear at the outset, allowing participants to prepare effectively, and indeed the right people may not have even been invited.

Because westerners view meetings as a place where ideas are discussed and decisions are made, and the Japanese they interact with may not share this definition, it’s vital to clarify the meeting’s objective in advance so that all participants can have matching expectations. 

I recommend preparing an “objective statement” for every meeting – a one-sentence explanation of the purpose of the meeting. This statement can be used when inviting people to attend, and should be repeated at the beginning of the meeting as a reminder. This objective statement can be something as simple, but precise, as “The purpose of this meeting is to choose which company will be our new supplier,” or “This meeting will be an opportunity for everyone to share their suggestions for the spring campaign.”

If you are in a situation where holding a meeting has been proposed, but the reason for the meeting is unclear, you can ask one of the following questions as a way to gently prompt everyone to clarify the goal:

  • “What should be the focus of this meeting?”
  • “What do we want to accomplish by holding this meeting?” 
  • “What do we want the outcome of this meeting to be?”

Once the purpose of the meeting has been decided, one additional step I would like to suggest is to think about whether a meeting is the best way to achieve that goal. For example, many Japanese companies have regular meetings devoted to reporting – each participant reads a prepared report about recent individual or group activities. These meetings tend to be mind-numbingly dull, as they tend to consist primarily of people reading aloud from their documents. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time – everyone could have received the same information in written form and read it on their own much more quickly. Another typical feature of this type of meeting is that the leader of the group will give his or her comments on the content of the report. If the leader feels negatively about what was presented, he may single out the person who read it for a barrage of negative feedback, often delivered in harsh tones. This type of public humiliation also does not sit well with non-Japanese, and can be considered one of the most de-motivating ways to use a group’s time together.

For more on how to make your cross-cultural meetings effective, get a copy of our free bilingual ebook here.

Related articles