Communication: the best and worst thing so learn to do it well

When approached to play a gig recently, I found myself in a situation where I was filling in for someone who had broken his arm. The gig was a few weeks away when I got the initial call so I had time to learn the material, although the first rehearsal was only a few days after that first contact. It wasn’t tricky material, so no issues.

The rehearsal went really well (although it wasn’t with the full band) and I felt a strong connection with the other players and the bandleader. At the rehearsal the bandleader mentioned the original guitarist said he might be able to strum a few songs at the gig.

I had two thoughts about this.

The first was that it would be in the best interests of the music to be a bit clearer on what and where he would join in. The second was that this was supposed to be a fun gig and ‘the more the merrier’ certainly applied in this case. So, in my mind, I was happy to wing it and have a quick chat before the gig about who would play what where, or even just figure it out on stage (any experienced musos reading this will know that this happens all the time). That was the end of my thoughts on the whole thing.

A few days before the gig we had another rehearsal, this time with the full band, except that the other guitarist (who was going to strum along) couldn’t make it. The bandleader had spoken with him and said that he was going to just jam along on the gig. When he mentioned this, he spoke with a certain reluctance, which struck me as a little odd.

I’ve learned that anything I notice about the tone in which someone speaks means that it must be a ‘thing’ otherwise I wouldn’t have picked up on it.

When we had a moment, I spoke with the bandleader and asked if he was uncomfortable with the guy jumping up on the night unrehearsed. He looked at me a bit odd and said not at all. I told him why I’d brought it up, and I could see the penny drop in his mind about what had happened. He had thought that I’d be put out with another guitarist coming in, and that I’d be upset to lose my ‘solos’. This made me recall that he had said something about solos when he mentioned the other guitarist would ‘strum along’. I thought he was uncomfortable with the ‘strumming along’, but what he was uncomfortable with was that he didn’t want me to be annoyed at someone stealing ‘my’ solos.

Now it should be mentioned that I hadn’t met anyone in the band (apart from one player) previously. If the bandleader had known me personally at all he would never have thought for a second that I was capable of any sort of prima donna turn.

In the end we had a bit of a chuckle at the miscommunication and the gig was fantastic.

The point of this story is that if you look at what happened from different points of view, it’s really easy to see how things got confused. It’s also equally simple to see how to avoid this kind of communication breakdown.

Let’s follow my train of events.

I get the gig to replace another guitarist.

I’m told the other guy might ‘strum along’ on the night.

[At this point I could have gone out of my way to say I’m fine with this. I did say ‘no problem’, but as I didn’t know the people I was working with, this message wasn’t clear to THEM. Likewise, the mention of ‘strum along’ is intended to make me feel valued and comfortable, and that my role as ‘lead guitarist’ isn’t threatened. I didn’t pick up on this.]

Next rehearsal, I’m told that the other guitarist will jam along, but I sense some reluctance in the bandleader.

[The one thing I think I did well in this whole situation was that I didn’t let something I thought was amiss just slide on by – I spoke up. When I did so, I considered the right time to bring it up and how to word what I was trying to say. In the end this was the catalyst for solving the issues before the gig, and everyone was happy when we went on stage.]

If I get to work with any of these people again (and I sincerely hope that I do!) we’ve laid the ground work for good communication, and we have confidence in each other to listen to anything one or the other of us has to say and sort it out. I know they’re good people who want the best for everyone and we’ve established trust from a situation that could have just been swept under the carpet.

The great irony of a situation like this is that everyone’s intent was to be respectful of everyone else. The other guitarist wanted to contribute in some way because he felt he’d caused the bandleader stress, so he offered to strum along. The bandleader didn’t want to waste any time that I had spent working on the material, by replacing my part with someone else’s, so he tried to assure me that the other guitar was a rhythm part and I would be the lead player. I thought there was something wrong between the bandleader and the other guitarist because I didn’t pick up on the real reason behind his overt assurances.

It was our good intentions that nearly caused us a big problem!

Communication is a major factor in the success of any undertaking – not just in music. When you talk with someone it is natural to draw on your own experience to understand their meaning. But remember it is THEIR meaning that it is important for you to understand.

How can you make sure you have understood what they are saying? I don’t know if there is any way that is 100% certain, but you can try an oft cited method sometimes called ‘reflecting’ or ‘mirroring’ or other similar terms.

The basic idea is this. You listen to the person and each time they make a specific point, you say back to them what you think they just said, but you do it in your own words.

This does a few things.

It means that you get to clarify what you’ve heard by having to find your own words to repeat the idea of what was said. The other person gets to hear their idea in different words. Then a synthesis of their words and your words can help you both agree on the underlying idea.

Words, words, words.

I saw an interview on a news show a while ago between a Professor who had just done an enormous report for the federal government and someone who was essentially trying to undermine the recommendations of that report. Both were being interviewed by the current affair show host. The Professor made a statement that went on for maybe 30 seconds or so. The other interviewee responded with, “You said that…” then said something that sounded pretty much like his own point of view. The Professor interrupted with, “I didn’t say that…” and it suddenly became a back and forth, “Yes you did, you used the word…”, “No I didn’t – rewind the tape and you’ll hear…” etc. It went on and on like this, and became childish tit for tat.

What struck me about this was that regardless of the specific word the Professor did or didn’t use, no-one focussed on what he had meant. Words are not an exact science, they have connotations that can be used in or out of context. It didn’t matter what word the Professor had used, what mattered was what did he mean when he used that word. If necessary, could he choose a different word to convey his meaning? But the media today seems full of people being accused of all sorts of things based on their word choice and not on their intended meaning.

The most astonishing thing was that the Professor, an extremely well educated man, was frothing at the mouth about his word selection every bit as much as the person accusing him of meaning based solely on choice of words.

Imagine if these intelligent people had simply sought to clarify meaning rather than pin one another to vocabulary? Of course, they probably knew exactly what they were doing and maybe had their own agenda for avoiding a genuine discussion. Who knows?

A different interviewer might have intervened and drawn the discussion back on topic. Just as the gig I mentioned earlier could have been a much different experience if we hadn’t collectively communicated well and got back to the business of having a great time together!

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