It Really Makes a Difference What we Say

Ben Zander

    How often are we aware of what we say? In business, in marketing, in conversations with family and friends… What if we were saying those words to someone for the last time we see them? Would we be more deliberate in our choices?

    The truth that the most valuable skill that nobody teaches is how to listen carries for our own words as well. They are out before we have had a chance to think about their meaning all too often. It really does make a difference what we say the words that come out of our mouth, says Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic.

I learned this from a woman who survived Auschwitz, one of the rare survivors. She went to Auschwitz when she was 15 years old. And … And her brother was eight, and the parents were lost.

She told me this, she said,We were in the train going to Auschwitz, and I looked down and saw my brother's shoes were missing. I said, 'Why are you so stupid, can't you keep your things together for goodness' sake?'” The way an elder sister might speak to a younger brother.

Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him, because she never saw him again. He did not survive. And so when she came out of Auschwitz, she made a vow. She told me this. She said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life and I made a vow. The vow was, 'I will never say anything that couldn't stand as the last thing I ever say.'”

Can we do that? No. And we'll make ourselves wrong and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into.

    Communication is such a beautiful thing. Even famous people, people we think have the gratifying feeling that others, an audience, pays attention to what they write and say, report that the experience of having a good conversation has no equal. We want to be heard, and at the same time we seek to be understood when the words that come back to us either reassure, expand upon, explain us to ourselves we feel at home.

Where our attention goes, so goes opportunity. Zander has a funny story about that:

Probably a lot of you know the story of the two salesmen who went down to Africa in the 1900s. They were sent down to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes, and they wrote telegrams back to Manchester.

One of them wrote,Situation hopeless. Stop. They don't wear shoes.” The other one wrote,Glorious opportunity. They don't have any shoes yet.”

    It's another way of looking from the point of view of possibility and potential. An even better example than that of the glass half full.

    How can we learn to train ourselves to see the difference?

    Ben Zander offers a path through the appreciation of classical music. Listening has transformative power and we can use it to improve the possibility of connection. For example, the world of music. Many think classical music is dying. Some people however think, “you ain't seen nothing yet.”

    Instead of talking about statistics of orchestras closing and record companies folding, Zander involves us in an experiment. Though he says it's not really one because we know the outcome going in. The difference between appreciation and indifference is an impulse. But it's not what we think.

    A musical conversation is very different from the halted attempts at playing piano of someone who is learning this is what musicians call impulse. He demonstrates by showing the difference listening to a piano as the student learns to play progressively.

    The accomplished player does sound more passionate, engaged, and involved. Maybe he got a new teacher, or hit puberty. But what actually happened was that he learned to reduce the impulses as he played, “the first time, he was playing with an impulse on every note.”

    Eventually the music itself talks back, pushes the musician's body over so he is “one-buttock playing, he says. The subject of Zander's experiment is Chopin. Chopin was a favorite in our home growing up. He was the first composer of genius to devote himself uniquely to the piano — every one of his works was written for it either as solo instrument or in combination with other instruments.

    The experiment is going to work, says Zander, because, “It's one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he's leading to realize whatever he's dreaming.”

    As a conductor, Zander realized that he made no sound. Yet, his picture goes on the cover of the CD. The leader makes no sound yet has power because for that he depends on his ability to make other people powerful:

That changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,Ben, what happened?”

That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. Of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. 

    We could use more “one-buttock playing” in business and in all facets of life. Fewer impulses, better connection.

Experience the full conversation below.


    For an exploration of the principles Ben Zander uses in his work, read The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, which he co-authored with his wife, psychotherapist Rosamund Stone Zander.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *