This is something that used to absolutely terrify me. Speaking professional Japanese. I eventually learned that by leaning into discomfort I could improve, but I used to get sweaty palms, light headed, and a heart rate that made me think my heart was trying to jump out of my chest just from thinking about talking to people professionally in Japanese. Once I was trying to give a speech, I actually blacked out; at the podium, mid-speech, and in front of over 100 doctors, attorneys, and CEOs. That was fun.
A little background, I learned how to speak Japanese when I was 16 by living in Japan, and I perfected casually speaking Japanese in college. However after that point, I never had to speak Japanese in a professional setting. It was always casual conversation, whether among friends, or in casual settings like bars, meet ups, and get togethers. So in essence my Japanese never progressed to the point of being able to converse in a professional setting.
Without getting too deeply into how the Japanese language works, formal business Japanese is completely different from casual or every day Japanese. Different words are used depending on the relationships you have with the people you are talking to, and even the people you might be talking about. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Learning advanced business Japanese is not for the faint of heart, nor for people that get headaches easily.
That being said, now it is something I have to do on a regular basis. I have worked for several Japanese companies in my career, and I currently teach in-language sessions to Japanese people when they need help with things like developing and delivering elevator pitches, cold calling advice, or any other skill set that might be culturally different from the way things are done in Japan.
When I first started working for a Japanese company, my background with Japan was considered indispensible, and while I could understand everything that was happening around me, I grew hesitant when speaking to my colleagues. I was trying to use words in Japanese I had never mastered, and could only guess their meaning based on the context. Needless to say, I made A LOT of mistakes. Like, A LOT of mistakes. And somewhere along the line, I started losing confidence in speaking Japanese in front of people I didn’t know that well.
I started asking my wife for help whenever I had to write an email in Japanese. The corrected emails she sent back looked NOTHING like my originals. So, my confidence fell even further. It got to be so bad, I found myself paralyzed by uncertainty whenever I found myself faced with an opportunity to speak Japanese in a professional setting. And speaking a second or third language is a use it or lose it thing. As my Japanese got worse, I stopped speaking altogether. It was so bad, I found myself too nervous to speak with my wife’s parents, two of the nicest and most loving people I know, and whom I’ve known since I was just starting college.
So what could I do? Everything that I was doing was only making the situation worse, and I felt terrible, so why would I want to face it?
Because facing it was the only thing that would make the situation better. A large part of my professional and personal life required that I speak polite Japanese, if not professional Japanese. So I did the only thing I could do. I improved by leaning into the discomfort I felt.
Once I stopped running away from the situation, things got A LOT better. I started by speaking more Japanese to my wife. My wife is a wonderfully patient person, who is by far a better teacher than I am, and even though she was ALWAYS correcting me, I kept at it. I also started listening to speeches and discussions in Japanese, and to REALLY try to write emails in Japanese emails. I even went back to my Japanese textbooks from college and re-studied them, not because I need the instruction, and because I needed to go back and get comfortable with using Japanese like I used to.
At first glance, it looks like I’m correcting one of my weaknesses, which most people that I coach know that I don’t believe in (overcoming your weaknesses just makes you mediocre, not spectacular). However, for me, this was a problem of being uncomfortable. And simply shying away from things that make me uncomfortable is a great way to be held back in life.
That is the great takeaway. I was avoiding something that I could be great at if I put a little bit of work into. Once I stopped avoiding the issue and started leaning into discomfort, I became a super star.
This is why you need to be honest with yourself. Attack your challenges, lean into discomfort, and do GREAT THINGS.
Today, I still get small bouts of stage fright when I have to present in Japanese (I have no such problems when I present in English). I combat that by rehearsing my presentations over and over again. I drive my wife crazy by pouring over every specific of a presentation, and she retaliates by being merciless in her feedback, which I heartily appreciate. And the result is, I give great presentations, and get a lot of business.
Be bold, by mighty, do great things.