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How the Chinese Manage Time: Yin, Yang and the Importance of Caves

An hour has sixty minutes in any culture or country around the world. There is the actual, fixed way of marking, measuring and managing time shared by everyone. At the same time, there is the subjective impression that we have of the passing of time. Why does an hour in the dentist’s chair feel like an eternity while a romantic weekend in Venice ends all too quickly?

In the business world where a “time is money” mentality is prevalent and people are paid for performance, set phrases such as “Let’s do lunch!” have become polite expressions absent of any true intention. The equivalent expression in Chinese would be “Have you eaten yet?” “ 你吃了没有“ , an inquiry to which no one really expects an answer.

As a linguist, intercultural trainer and coach, I believe that these now “empty” expressions are carried over from days gone by when people naturally had more time to give and to share with each other. Who doesn’t secretly yearn for a life that was richer, simply because we could make time for ourselves and others?

Increasingly multinational companies are providing coaching to help executives adjust to new or challenging environments and enhance their performance. Part of the benefits of the coaching process is helping managers reconnect and gain insight on how they decide what is really important and manage their time.

Any Westerner interested in doing business in Asian markets is hopefully familiar with the monochronic (linear) and polychronic (spontaneous) tendencies of certain cultures as introduced by Geerte Hofstede in the 1960s. People from monochronic cultures (the Swiss, Germans and Anglo-Saxons) have greater respect for time schedules while those from polychronic cultures (Asians, southern Europeans, Africans and Latin Americans) generally give priority to relationships and take a more relaxed approach to the clock. This information, while of interest to international MBA students, does not really bring much insight when coaching individual clients.

Phillip Rosinski, in his important book, “Global Coaching”, explores time management patterns in a manner which is more meaningful than the traditional monochronic/ polychronic dichotomy. He describes cultures where time is a limited commodity “scarce” in contrast to those where it is viewed as unlimited or “plentiful”. In a coaching conversation, I find this approach is more helpful when it comes to building awareness.

Now telling an executive who works 10 to 12 hours per day that his or her time is abundant, is likely to be greeted with a raised eyebrow. It seems reasonable that managers under pressure to perform would want fast results from coaching. To certain extent, this expectation seems perfectly reasonable. It does not, however, prevent me from pointing out that meaningful change will only come from the “Time is Abundant” perspective.

Surprisingly, this approach can resonate with the Chinese, proud participants of a collectivist, polychronic culture with a strong past orientation. If we as coaches want to help our Chinese clients build any kind of awareness, clients, we must ourselves understand their cultural context. This idea was not lost on Frank Gallo, who, in his excellent work, “Executive Coaching in China” devotes an entire chapter to the influences of Confucianism and Buddhism on management practices. In this article, I would like to explore Daoism, China’s third “religion”, as I believe that it is the least understood yet the most influential when it comes to the Chinese mindset.

I would also like to introduce a different dichotomy which I feel comes closer to how the Chinese traditionally perceive the passing of time which I will call, Created versus Natural Time. I need to put the emphasis on the word ‘traditionally’ because even Chinese people themselves may not immediately be aware of it. However, before I explore this concept of Natural Time, I would like to bring to light a few cultural paradoxes I noticed when living in China.

Flexibility and Speed!

It doesn’t take very long for any foreigner in China to figure out that the Chinese are the undisputed kings of “kuài” 快….fast! Responding quickly to changing situations is almost always considered effective and desirable. In fact, the pronunciation of the character for fast also means happiness or good fortune! Chinese people traditionally finish their meals with two pieces of bamboo 竹 which we call chopsticks ….筷子kuàizi….as “quickly” as possible.

When I first started learning Chinese, I continually heard polite expressions with the adverb ‘slowly, slowly’ uttered by people who themselves were constantly in a hurry. Simple statements such as “enjoy your meal” or “take your time going home” in Chinese would come out as, 慢慢吃 “màn màn chī” – literally “slowly, slowly eat” or 慢慢走 “màn màn zǒu” – slowly, slowly go.

Curiously, in Chinese if you wanted to ask someone when they were free, the sentence would come out as, “你有空吗?” ní yǒu kōng ma? (Do you have any free time?) The key character here being “kōng” which by itself would be translated as “empty” or “void”. I find this ideogram fascinating. It is one radical 穴 placed on top of another 工. Although the bottom half looks like a capital I, it originally was a drawing of a shovel, the top horizontal line representing a handle. By itself, 工 , is a character which is pronounced "gōng" and means “worker” or “workman”. Yet it is the top character 穴 representing a cave which I find most revealing.

The Dao of Time Management

What importance do caves have in Chinese culture? In Daoism, these grotto heavens (Dòngtian 洞天 ) are sacred isolated spaces where important scrolls are kept and medicinal plants grow. Sages could take refuge there and practice inner stillness in a totally Yīn 阴 (dark, earth, feminine, nurturing) environment…away from the demands and the distractions of the outside Yáng 阳 (light, sky, masculine) world. They were set up during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) as shelters where practitioners could re-establish balance and harmony and time could come to a stop.

Traditional Chinese medicine often treats illness as “imbalances” and their treatment is often based on the seasons, nature’s calendar. The importance of quieting the mind and becoming aware of changes within oneself (one’s body) allows one to simultaneously live in harmony with one’s environment and better utilize one’s life force or “qì”/tchi 气 a Chinese character with a number of possible translations such as ‘air’ ‘spirit’ ‘vapor’ or ‘breath’.

As a coach who often works with Chinese executives, I have the challenge of building trust and helping a client find (or rediscover) the Yīn (the little black circle in white (Yang) half of the Dao. If "Yáng" is action and achievement, where else can one go find the fuel for this energy but within? I explained this approach in my first session with Mr. Z., my client for some leadership coaching at a Chinese joint venture. He initially found this approach interesting yet a bit too abstract to be of any real use to him. I then asked him to turn off this cell phone for the next 90 minutes.

"Ninety minutes?!" he says in disbelief! "But I need to stay in touch with my family!"

“Well, I understand your devotion to your parents and your children,” I say, “but you simply need to get connected to yourself.”

“To myself?”

“Yes, to yourself….because if you really want to be of service to those in your network, you must take time to recharge your own battery.”

“And how do I do that?”, he asks with curiosity.

“Well ,” I reassure him, “it may take a bit of “gōng” (work) and time to enter the cave of “kōng” (empty) but without doing so there is little wisdom or lasting change which will come out of a coaching session.”

A Brief Word on Change

I do not in any way pretend to be an expert on Daoism. In fact, anyone who began pontificating on the subject would immediately be pushed off the pedagogical pedestal by the spirit of Lao Zi himself. I'm a coach specialized in helping people adapt to changes. I've also turned more than a few pages in the Dào dé jīng (the Book of Changes). I surrender to a Higher Wisdom.

He who knows does not speak; He who speaks does not know.

Part of the process of glimpsing the unfathomable Dào 道 (which literally means “Way”) is through detachment. The limited human brain cannot possibly know through words what is unknowable and it is only through a detachment from thoughts and a suspension of created time that any clarity about oneself (the separate self, in fact, being an illusion)….or should I say, clarity about an ever changing reality can be perceived.

It is my belief that we (coaches and clients) put ourselves under a lot of unnecessary pressure. Coaches tend to talk too much in an effort to provide answers or solutions and clients invariably put words to ideas which are not really theirs. As a matter of fact, I can spend a good part of my coaching session doing what I encourage my clients to do: observe in silence what comes to the surface. When the time is right, we can start to work on a map.

Now, we may not find the path to that mysterious and wonderful place called a cave the first time around. But when we do, I have just one request.

Please turn off your cell phone.

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