Considering Compassion in A Quartet that Went from Quality to QuarrelingPosted by admin on Mar 22, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments
By Jed Johnson
CompassionLab Intern, 2014-2015
During high school, as a prospective conservatory-bound violinist, I was constantly practicing etudes, traveling to solo competitions, and, for a bit of extra cash, gigging with my string quartet. We had started performing together during my sophomore year and got along extremely well, grabbing Sunday brunch before rehearsals and having weekly movie nights. After months of doing this, something changed. Our violist, at first agreeable and performing well, became withdrawn and difficult to be around. The rest of the quartet began to feel that our violist wasn’t putting in the effort he needed to perform at his best, while his newly surfaced negative attitude was proving difficult to shake off the rest of us. Nevertheless, we tried to function as usual, as our performances and competitions increased with our popularity in the community where I grew up.
One particular September afternoon during my senior year, after snippy comments from our violist had set our tempers aflare, we were driving to a gig in the next town, jaws clenched, not speaking to one another. At the gig, which was a wedding, we were so unbelievably frustrated with our violist that I felt sick while performing Canon in D and the rest of the wedding repertory. To me, there was something so fundamentally wrong about music making me feel worse instead of better, which was occurring because of my frustration with our violist. Looking back on this day, I wonder to myself how a once successful group of friends who accomplished so much with enthusiasm and smiles turned to make everyone, including myself, harbor such negative emotions like annoyance, contempt, and frustration.
Fast forward three years later to the present, where I’m an undergraduate studying psychology at the University of Michigan. Interestingly enough, it was through a series of coincidences that began with music at the university with The Michigan Pops Orchestra that led me to volunteer teaching music in Brazil, leading me to raise money for that project through an organization which informed me about the Center for Positive Organizations, launching my studies in positive organizational scholarship over the past summer and now to the Compassion Lab at the Ross School of Business. Compassion, as defined by the lab, is “an interpersonal process involving the noticing, feeling, sensemaking, and acting that alleviates the suffering of another person” (Dutton, Workman, Hardin, 2014). What drew me strongly to the study of compassion was the focus on noticing suffering and empathizing with those who are suffering. In retrospect, I can see how this relates to my experience in my quartet, in itself a very small organization, in that we were suffering as a result of what could have been a reaction to suffering from our violist.
In learning about the scholarship already present in the study of compassion, I discovered that my quartet was not alone in having many negative emotions. In an article published in Organization Science, a study done with several professional orchestras in Great Britain demonstrates how the toxicity of delayed decision making and communication negatively affects the health and morale of an organization (Maitlis & Ozcelik, 2004). Figure 1 (Cycles of Emotion and Action in Toxic Decision Processes) shows the cycling of negative emotions arising from hot issues and actions that were, in the study, inappropriately executed to deal with the original issue.
Our original issue, in my quartet, was the poor performance and negative attitude of our violist. Since I came from a small town and a small music program, there was no other violist that I could have replaced ours with that could perform our repertoire, meaning we had no other option put to perform with our violist. As such, we were stuck at a point in the cycle before detonation, meaning we were perpetually experiencing negative emotions in our quartet and not resolving our problems. Knowing how toxic decision processes work now through this cycle, I would have tried to ameliorate the anxiety and apprehension that we experienced in dealing with the ‘hot issue’ of our violist’s poor attitude, to avoid the continual inertia of negative emotions we experienced in this quartet.
Since high school I’ve been able to maintain an active presence in the musical community here in Ann Arbor, performing with orchestras, taking lessons, and most meaningfully to me being part of a different string quartet. My high school quartet was never able to regain the rapport we once had, making our rehearsals become an unwanted obligation and our performances lacking inspiration. Upon graduating, we all went our separate ways and haven’t performed together for several years now. However, with my new quartet and my added knowledge about acting compassionately in the workplace and in life, I’ve had another chance to think about how to act differently in other musical ensembles. Firstly, if ever somebody came into rehearsal less chipper than usual or with a bad attitude, I would ask if something was upsetting them (in terms of studying compassion, prompting the sharing of news), rather than ignoring displays of potential suffering as I had once done. This is a more appropriate action to dealing with a ‘hot issue’ than a ‘business as usual’ approach and does not allow for a cycle of negative emotions and actions to occur., in my quartet, was the poor performance and negative attitude of our violist. Since I came from a small town and a small music program, there was no other violist that I could have replaced ours with that could perform our repertoire, meaning we had no other option put to perform with our violist. As such, we were stuck at a point in the cycle before detonation, meaning we were perpetually experiencing negative emotions in our quartet and not resolving our problems. Knowing how toxic decision processes work now through this cycle, I would have tried to ameliorate the anxiety and apprehension that we experienced in dealing with the ‘hot issue’ of our violist’s poor attitude, to avoid the continual inertia of negative emotions we experienced in this quartet.
People can accomplish tasks together and ‘get the job done’ while withholding their emotions and bottling up unpleasant feelings, as my high school quartet was able to do. However, the difference between my functioning high school quartet and my connected, attuned, and empathetic college quartet is that between polite clapping and a roaring standing ovation. Noticing compassion and changing actions accordingly can dramatically alter the morale, and by extension the productivity, of an organization, whether it’s a string quartet, a symphony orchestra, a law firm, or a planning committee. In this way, negative emotions can be dealt with appropriately and pave the way for positive, enriching experiences to be created.