What 'Ma' would say about having great impact

Pauses, white space and an understanding of our differences are valuable tools in communications

Have you ever finished a conversation and been left with a nagging thought ‘Something didn’t feel right about that’?  If the dynamics don’t feel right maybe its time to see if ‘Ma’ can shed some light on the relationship.

As much as it would be lovely to say that you can go sit by a fire in a comfy chair where a wise old ‘Ma’ would offer a warm cup of cocoa and some timely words of advice, in this case ‘Ma’ has a different meaning.

‘Ma’ is a concept used in the art world, particularly Japanese art1.  It refers to an interpretation of an empty space, which often holds as much importance as the rest of the artwork.  It can help focus the viewer on either the intention of negative space, or the objects in the art piece.  ‘Ma’ has also been used in music, where the silence in between musical notes can help emphasise particular notes, or phrases of music.

If the dynamic of a conversation doesn’t feel right, it can help to look at the space you’ve created between you – the ‘Ma’ in your conversation. ‘Ma’ represents space that holds potential.  Lao Tzu said “clay is shaped into a pot, but it is the space in the clay which is the essence of the pot.”     This concept can be applied to design, production, music and also business relationships.

A great conversation is more than 2 people talking at each other. It is when people talk with each other. A great conversation creates more than either person could on their own.  In a way, the conversation is more than the sum of the two people talking.

Aristotle is credited with first coining the phrase “the sum is greater than the parts3”. This is a different way of interpreting the essence of ‘Ma’.  The space between, or around, the individual parts can add to our experience of it.  It can change its meaning or its impact.

Aristotle’s wisdom pops up in a number of GPB’s  “Speak up” articles.  He founded The Lyceum, a school where students were encouraged to follow him while he walked the campus sharing his ideas as they came to him.  Most of us know someone who would like to work in that way.

He was so revered that after his death scholars collected his teachings and put them together in a book, Aristotle’s Metaphysics4.

In the case of this quote, Aristotle was suggesting that by looking at the whole of a system, including how the parts relate to each other, it gives a greater level of understanding than if we look at the parts individually. The relationships (spaces and connections) between the parts is the ‘Ma’.

A 20th century update to this is ‘Systemic thinking’. It helps provide an in-depth understanding of complex and dynamic situations.  The ‘Ma’ may be less obvious to us in complex and dynamic situations but is just as important.  Seeing the ‘Ma’ in Rubin’s Vase (see picture on page 3) can be obvious, whereas seeing the ‘Ma’ in a fast moving business relationship may take more time to see.  The term ‘Systemic Thinking’ was first introduced by Barry Richmond5 in 1987. Would he be pleased or frustrated that since then there has been an almost constantly shifting/evolving definition (depending on the industry, author or date)?

Picking out the more common themes in most definitions, to best understand a complex system:

  • Consider the whole of the system rather than just the parts
  • Examine and understand interconnections and interrelationships, and
  • Revisit your analysis as behaviours are dynamic (i.e. change over time).


Ma in presentations and documents

If there were a real ‘Ma’ who could gently give some comforting words of wisdom in applying this to making an impact in a pitch, building a relationship or winning work, what would she say?

Firstly, and perhaps most simply, is the power of a pause in a presentation or pitch.  In the same way that the silences between notes can help emphasise the music, you can create a sense of importance with the appropriate use of a pause. For example: Deliberately pausing before a phrase (Thinking Pause), before a key word (Dramatic Pause) or after a phrase (Digestion Pause) are skills of many great speakers.

You can do the same thing with the written word.  Create space on the page around the main aspect you would like the reader to notice. For example:

“This could be nonsense about a flame grilled trumpet – but you will notice it.”


Ma in Negotiations

Secondly, in any persuasive argument, debate or negotiation, you will be less effective if you only examine your position, or, if you only examine the position of the other person.  Once you have analysed both positions then consider the gap in-between (Ma).  What similarities exist?  How can you use those to build a bridge between you?  What differences exist?  What options do you have to close the gap?


Ma in Relationship Building

Thirdly, you can use Ma to help build long-standing, successful business relationships.  These develop and grow when both parties achieve something that neither could achieve on their own.  They make use of the space in-between (Ma) to create something that is more than the sum of the parts.  This concept can transform relationships within organisations as well as between organisations and their clients.

Finally, relationship dynamics often change over time.  When our priorities, project timelines or market dynamics change our mindsets and behaviours shift.  That is the same for those around us.  If we assume that the dynamics of our relationships will remain constant, then we risk missing important shifts.  Reviewing relationship dynamics regularly and responding to those changes quickly and appropriately helps us maintain our strong relationships.

By Paul Golding

Our guest author, Paul, is an Executive Coach at Baransu Limited.



  1. Kisaki, Y, 15th August 2011, When Less is More: Japanese Concept of “Ma”, Minimalism and Beyond. Available from https://wawaza.com/blogs/when-less-is-more-japanese-concept-of-ma-minimalism-and-beyond/
  2. 2 ladies talking image Unsplash,com. Available at https://unsplash.com/photos/eF7HN40WbAQ
  3. Aristotle. Excerpt available at https://se-scholar.com/se-blog/2017/6/23/who-said-the-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts.
  4. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 8, Section 1045a. Available at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D8%3Asection%3D1045a
  5. Richmond, Barry, Systemic Thinking. Available at https://thesystemsthinker.com/the-thinking-in-systems-thinking-how-can-we-make-it-easier-to-master/
  6. Negotiation Image Unsplash.com. Available at https://unsplash.com/photos/5QgIuuBxKwM
  7. Rubin’s Vase image. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubin_vase
  8. Japan House, Los Angeles, 21st April 2022, A Perspective of Japanese Concept of ‘Ma’. Available at https:www.japanhousela.com/articles/a-perspective-on-the-japanese-concept-of-ma/