How a traditional Japanese concept can help us create more “aha” moments in coaching: meet Ma.


Magical moments

There is something wonderful listening to a coach describe when someone they are working with has an ‘aha’ moment. That moment can be an insight, a realisation or a next step that is particularly useful to them.

That ‘aha’ moment was not created by the coach, nor by the coachee but in that moment where they were working together.

There are many ways to describe what coaches do to help make these moments happen: focussing on the magic in the middle; leaning into dance (metaphorically, of course); or deliberate co-creation. 

There is a traditional Japanese concept which can also help coaches to create these moments. The concept is ’Ma’.

Ma – a definition and how it is used

‘Ma’ is a particular way of looking at ‘negative space’. Negative space feels like an odd phrase, which can be brought to life by thinking about how it is used.

In architecture and art, Ma is the deliberate use of empty space between objects. In music, it is the deliberate use of pauses between notes. 

In both cases, it is the deliberate use of the space that accentuates what is around it.

There is a well-known image, created by Rubin in 1915, of a vase which can also be seen as two faces.  Looking at the image it’s possible to switch between seeing the vase or the faces.  This has been described as a ‘gestalt switch’:  to notice what is emerging in the moment.


There are entire coaching philosophies related to a Gestalt approach. A Gestalt coach adopts a holistic approach, recognising many aspects of the human condition: thoughts, feelings, behaviours, perceptions and spirit and works with what emerges in the moment.

Gestalt and Ma are not the same thing, but both concepts can enable a coach to work with what is emerging in the space between them and their coachee.  

As a philosophical concept, Ma has been described as our intrinsic desire to identify with purpose and to aspire. Ma is the space we originate and evolve from. Ma starts void of meaning, and the meaning is to be created by us.

It is also possible to identify Ma in conversations: the pauses between words or sentences that create a gentle place for emotion to be expressed. 

A revered way of communicating in Japan makes use of Ma: where clarity in words is not always needed, and where reaching an intuitive understanding in a silent pause is considered intelligent and sophisticated. 

In many parts of Japan, thoughtful observation and attentive listening are more valued than forcefully providing an opinion or speaking to fill an uncomfortable silence. 

Making use of Ma in coaching conversations

As coaches we know how powerful our full attention can be. It is our attention to the person in that moment that makes it so valuable to them. While the word, or concept, may be new, we all make use of ‘Ma’ in our coaching already.

As a coach you could make use of Ma in various ways:

  • By the use of a deliberate pause after a question or after your coachee has finished their initial train of thought. 
  • By considering how and when you choose to share a model, a tool or a technique. What influence will the introduction of a tool have to the space between you at that moment?  The right tool brought in at the right time, in the right way, will enhance the space between you.  
  • By considering how you contract when you work with your coachees. You could give a clear explanation that as coach you won’t be doing all the work or providing all the input; be clear about the boundaries of the space; or invite your coachee to fully explore what they want to work with and how they want to work. 
  • By choosing to be silent and accompanying your silence with a meaningful gesture when the person you are with is sharing something profound or important. A slight nod of your head at just the right moment can let your coachee know that you have really heard them. 

There is wisdom in knowing when to consciously make use of any tool or technique, Ma included. 

How to use Ma to help our coaching development

As well as making use of Ma in our conversations, our architecture and our art, we can make use of it over days, weeks or months to help us continue to develop as coaches.   

The sometimes frantic nature of life makes creating space a little tricky for some. When, and how, do we create space for ourselves?

(This sometimes feels like one of the most common questions that pops up in coaching).

In practical terms, we can be creating “Ma space” in any day, week, or month so that we can reflect on what we are doing, who we are doing it with and in what order. That reflective space can mean we are more efficient or productive when we are “getting things done”. If we have created this space properly, we are fully present when we arrive for a coaching session. Being fully present will mean we are best placed to create Ma in the in conversations.

Taking it a level deeper, in a true sense of Ma, creating space for ourselves will help us open to what can emerge from within. In the silence and the space, we can sometimes hear the whisper of what’s important for our development that can’t be heard amongst the din of high productivity, back-to-back sessions and accomplishment of tasks.

For me, I often imagine “Ma” as a gentle grandmother figure sitting by the fire. She is warm, compassionate and has boundless positive intent. When that image comes to mind it helps me bring “Ma” into my coaching. I focus on the space between us; I believe in the possibility of what will emerge; and whatever happens it remains, at least to me, a moment to be lived in.


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