Why Can’t We Just Get Along? 5 Ways to Have Effective and Empowered Communication

We all know how incredibly personal and meaningful music making is. We pour our time, blood, sweat and tears into our craft.

What happens when you get several people together in a room, all with different passionate points of view of how he or she thinks the phrase (or tempo or project, etc.) should go?

Ideally, everyone is united love for the music, passion for the piece or standard of excellence for the outcome.

Where breakdown comes, however, is when no one has clarified in a universal way exactly WHAT that outcome IS.

Defining the objective.

When you come together for your rehearsal, board meeting, or business planning session, the best thing you can do is make sure you have a crystal clear objective that everyone understands.

That seems simple enough but you’d be amazed how misunderstandings snowball because of common language and assumptions.

Here’s an example.

A few years ago I worked with an ensemble that had incredible tension and conflict. The group was divided in pairs of two. One pair was incredibly frustrated and resentful of the other pair because they were “unprepared and never on time.”

I asked the cellist to explain so I could understand an actual experience through her eyes.

“It’s 2:58 pm and I’m in my chair studying the score,” she explains. “I’ve tuned, warmed up and am ready to go. At 3:00 pm they come rolling in, and it takes another 10-15 minutes for them to get settled, tuned, and ready to start. They are late and just don’t seem to care!” she says in utter frustration.

“I know this may seem crazy, but have you ever discussed and defined as a group what being “on time” means, I ask?

“WHAT? Are you serious? On time means on time! The rehearsal was at 3:00 pm!”

“I understand”, I replied. “But it sounds like you had the expectation that being “on time” meant arrive 20-30 minutes early, warming up, tuning, studying the score and being ready to START at 3:00 pm. And for them, it seems they thought that being on time meant getting through the door at 3:00 pm.”

I recommended to the group that they take the time to have a group policy where they clarified for all members what things like being on time, being prepared for rehearsal, and being concert ready actually means.I also recommended that they set a clear goal and plan for the next rehearsal at the end of the previous one. When goals, standards, and objectives aren’t clearly defined for the group, there are way too many possibilities for individual and unique definitions and perceptions, of what things mean, with each member going on their own meaning and assuming everyone else thinks the same way. Resentments build and judgments occur when those assumptions are unfulfilled. This leads to long-term interpersonal challenges and conflict.

Give people your complete attention.

One thing I see often when working with an ensemble or organization is that people don’t listen. They often interrupt, talk over one another, talk at the same time or even speak for another person. Rarely does a point ever get completed or acknowledged this way.

Additionally, people often listen in a way that is preparing a response rather than actually taking in what another person is saying.

Stay Curious

In any kind of discussion where people are personally invested in an idea, particularly when talking about music, it can get heated because people get identified by their music making and the discussion gets very personal instead of objective.

I love these quotes by the American Investor Ray Dalio in his book Principles.

Judging people before really seeing things through their eyes, stands in the way of understanding their circumstances and this isn’t smart.

I urge you to be curious enough to want to understand how people who see things differently from you, came to see them that way.

I recommend the following:

  • Have a “no cell phone at the table” policy.  I know I don’t need to explain that personal devices are as distracting as they are useful.  Participate fully and be present with what’s happening in the room.
  • Only one person speaks at a time.
  • If you don’t understand, ask rather than assume. “What I’m hearing you say is….. it that correct?”

Speak in ‘I statements’

The most important thing you can do in any discussion is to speak in the first person.

  • “I heard you say that you wanted to start the program with the Mozart, is that correct?”
  • “I feel disrespected when you reject my idea without trying it wholeheartedly first.”
  • “I understood the presenter say we would need to speak before the performance.”

When I see people argue they are speaking in accusation “You said. You did. You made me feel”, etc.

This kind of speaking guarantees disaster and conflict.

When you speak with “you statements” it puts the other person on the defensive and the only way they can respond is with a yes or no (“no I didn’t!”) It stops all curiosity and understanding and creates an argument of alternating monologues.

When you take it out of accusation and into personal ownership, then a different kind of discussion can happen. Both people’s unique perspective is heard, acknowledged and understand

When each person owns their experience, then you can discuss the third entity: the experience that is happening as a result of those two unique perspectives and experiences. Instead of focusing on who is right and who is wrong, you can return your focus to the objective of what you are trying to accomplish!

Avoid accusing people of always and never.

Think of a time when you got into an argument with someone and they were really upset with you. Most likely that person accused you of “always” doing something or “never” doing something.

This is a low blow. It guarantees that no consensus is possible.

The fact is that we all do things some of the time.

If you want someone to actually hear, understand and respect what you are saying, it’s essential that you make your point moment specific.

“Last week when we went out after the concert, I heard you complain to Joe about my choice of repertoire for the performance. Is that true? Is that how you really feel? Because that really hurts and I’d rather have you tell me to my face.”

This way the other person can get specifically into that memory and say yes or no and then explain his point of view. From there a solution can emerge, whether it’s clearing the air, opening up more sincere communication, finding a new outcome, etc.

Finally, Celeste Headlee has a phenomenal TED Talk that highly recommend


While the art of communication is an endless pursuit of mastery and finesse, I can promise you that just the tools above can make a tremendous change in your communication and collaboration!

MKI Artists