The Practice of Transformation - January/February 2002
Posted: 2002-08-27 12:48:00
With Ben and Roz Zander, breakthroughs are the norm By Richard Simon Ben and Roz Zander know how to make an offer that's hard to refuse. For example, Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and celebrated expert on Gustav Mahler, tells music students beginning a course with him that, if they attend class regularly, "I guarantee you a major breakthrough in your life and in your music-making." It is the same confidence he carries with him as one of the world's most sought after corporate speakers on leadership and creativity, traveling around the globe addressing groups like Disney, Merrill Lynch, AT&T, IBM, NASA and the United States Army to whom he promises "access to a more fully lived life." And this March, therapists will even have the chance to take him up on his offer when he gives the opening keynote address at the 25th Anniversary Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Roz Zander, a family therapist and landscape painter, as well as Zander's long-time creative and business partner, displays the same assurance in the more intimate confines of her consulting room. She promises her clients that if they don't have a significant breakthrough during a session, she will not charge them for her time with them. "I don't hedge my bets," she says, "but I wouldn't be able to say that if I didn't have a lot of skills at turning things around." What makes these two so confident? Their approach and ideas about personal change are set forth in The Art of Possibility , a book that embodies their unusual partnership and, according to Roz, seeks to "convey the experience of partnership itself to the reader." Although both Zanders are listed as coauthors, it was actually conceptualized and written by Roz, who sought to capture the spirit of her creative collaboration with Ben-whose life and experiences as a conductor and teacher provided many of the book's most illuminating anecdotes. Evolving out of the coaching practices she developed with clients and with Ben over the past 15 years, The Art of Possibility is written as a kind of dialogue between the performing arts and the therapy profession that seeks to meld the creative power of the first and the healing insights of the latter. For Roz, the distinctiveness of The Art of Possibility lies in its attempt to involve the reader in a way that moves beyond ideas and theories into transformative practices that can make a concrete difference in life. "You can't write a book about transformation, you have to deliver transformation," she explains. "So each chapter in the book is written as a journey into the underworld and back, ending with a practice for creating a new future." In fact, the practices set forth in The Art of Possibility -t-he Zanders' strategies for living and perceiving the world-probably look simple, even familiar, to most therapists. But Roz insists there is more to them than the casual therapist reader might at first conclude. "These practices are not about making incremental changes," she writes in her introduction, "and they are not about self-improvement. They are geared instead toward causing a total shift of posture, perception, beliefs and thought processes. They are about transforming your entire world." So far, sales of The Art of Possibility are approaching 100,000 copies, and the book has elicited breathless testimonials from the likes of management guru Warren Bennis and authors Doris Kearns Goodwin and Gail Sheehy. In their different arenas of operation, both Zanders seem to have a rare ability to summon up unexpressed creative powers within other people that many do not even know they have. But while their book was shaped by Roz's framing of the challenge of change, it is Ben's onstage presence as the public voice of the partnership that has brought the Zanders the attention they are currently receiving, including a segment on 60 Minutes and an admiring BBC documentary. Trying to describe what Ben Zander does in front of a large audience (or in the audience--he is not constrained by the usual boundary of stage and podium separating him from the throng) is like trying to capture the essence of electricity-it crackles, it sparks, it's a powerful natural source of light, heat and energy, but what is it exactly? Perhaps electricity is not such a bad metaphor; Benjamin Zander turns people on-to their own talent, to their relationships, to their lives. In a music class at Walnut Hill, a boarding high school for training gifted young people in the performing arts, he exhorts an inhibited young woman to put more heart and soul into her piano playing. "Make it sound like the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion!" he almost yells, circling her, swooping down and making roaring-lion sounds, gently pushing her shoulder, pushing her to get more deeply and powerfully into the piece of music she is playing. In the same class, he propels a violinist back and forth as she plays, one arm at her waist, the other broadly "conducting" the rhythm, while he hums loudly and enthusiastically, sweeping the girl along on a tide of pure rapturous pleasure in the music. While she plays furiously, he touches the face of a young man in the front row and says, "Look! Look! See how his eyes are shining, see how you've moved him?"--thus making her aware of her capacity to create magic and inspire passion. Before a corporate audience of 6,000 people in an airplane-hangar of a convention center in Atlanta, this lanky, 62-year-old Englishman, with his bushy eyebrows, penetrating eyes and silvery nimbus of hair, looks like a cross between a rumpled philosophy professor and a slightly mad Prometheus. A whirlwind of activity, he claps, he stamps, he waves his arms, he runs, he crouches, he skips, he leaps, he tells stories and jokes, he swoops down the aisles, he demonstrates "one-buttock playing" at the piano-being half-lifted from the bench by the transporting power of the music he's playing. Sitting down at the piano, he plays the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at breakneck speed and virtuosity, then jumps up as if propelled into the air by the music and, continuing to sing the melody, runs straight at the audience--virtually smacking into one surprised woman in the front row-all to make the point that what matters in life, including Beethoven's Fifth, is seldom completely safe or entirely comfortable. Whether standing before a mob of corporate bigwigs or a small music class of teens, Zander uses music and his own exuberantly expressive persona to deliver his main lesson: how to live life passionately and fully in the vast and liberating realm of possibility; how to become braver, more open to human connection, more capable of expressing our deepest, most creative impulses. These are not new ideas, but what distinguishes Zander is his dedication to not only living this way himself but somehow viscerally infusing people with the same vital currents of enthusiasm, confidence and delight that course through his own being. A Personal Revolution Born in England, Benjamin Zander was one of four siblings in a traditional and intensely achievement-oriented Jewish household. Zander began composing at the age of 9 and dropped out of school at 15 to study cello in Florence with the great Spanish cello virtuoso Gaspar Cassado for five years. What might have been a brilliant cello career was cut short several years later, however, because Zander could not develop the requisite calluses on his fingers for playing professionally-often his fingers were bleeding and raw after a performance. Forced to choose another calling, he became a conductor and led the Civic Orchestra of Boston until 1978, when the board fired him because he insisted on playing challenging and "difficult" music, including Mahler and Anton Bruckner. At that point, every player in the orchestra resigned in protest and, with Zander as their conductor, they formed an entirely new orchestra-the Boston Philharmonic, where he has been ever since. In addition, he conducts the Youth Philharmonic of the New England Conservatory of Music (where he is a faculty member) and is frequently a guest conductor with other orchestras, including London's most famous orchestra, The Philharmonia, with which he is currently engaged in making recordings of the cycle of Mahler and Beethoven symphonies. About 15 years ago, Zander underwent a personal revolution. In spite of his success, he was not, by his own account, a very happy man. He felt a gnawing sense of restless dissatisfaction with his career and was obsessed with his own personal success. "My whole life was about striving. I was horribly driven, self-absorbed and needy." Furthermore, much to his shock, his second marriage--to Roz--broke up. The failure of his marriage was a personal disaster for Zander, but it propelled him into thinking more deeply about the meaning of his life and even his approach to music as nothing else ever had. Roz herself was a key catalyst at this turning point in Ben's life. In her eyes, although the couple needed to live apart and had formally "separated," they would never be truly separate. A human connection did not end simply because it could not be carried on in the same terms as before. Furthermore, she says now, it seemed very clear to her that if Ben didn't thrive, she would not thrive. "We are going to be related forever--this is not about splitting up," she told him at the time. "It is up to us to invent a form that allows us to contribute to each other, and to set a distance that supports us to be fully ourselves." Zander remembers to this day his astonishment when Roz helped him furnish his new apartment, which she had also helped him find, with some of her own possessions from before they were married. "She focused on the questions, Would I be happy? Would I be effective? Would I be able to run my life well? She was confident that there would always be enough to go around if we were in good relationship, so she did not hold on to possessions as though there were no tomorrow. She focused all her attention on the fact that we were still related, so we might as well be related in the best possible way. I often tell this story to people because it is a huge gift to realize that you don't have to keep scorecards of what went wrong. You can actually say, 'That is the past. This is the present. Now, what can we do?'" Soon after their separation, both participated in The Forum, Werner Erhard's two-weekend training experience in emotional and philosophical enlightenment--a softer, gentler version of the controversial Erhard Seminar Training, known to the hundreds of thousands who took part in it-and relentlessly proselytized for it-simply as "est." The Forum evoked in both Ben and Roz a sense of the potential within every human being for freedom, choice and self-invention. It taught them that people could be either reactive to life or creative (the words are exactly the same, except for the placement of the c); they could see possibility inherent within every situation they faced or feel themselves driven by circumstances beyond their control, stuck in a story not of their own making. For Roz particularly, the Forum was like coming home-it crystallized and articulated a way of thinking and being that had always been part of her makeup. "I could see more clearly that what makes us similar as people is our struggle, the way we get bogged down and take ourselves too seriously; what makes us different is our creativity and joyousness. So, instead of worrying about whether you'll get enough success, or about where you stand socially or how miserable you are and how meaningless life is, why not focus on doing things you want to do that can make a difference to you?" Buoyed in part by the Forum, Roz began leading "accomplishment groups" that met regularly over the course of a year, in which each member vowed at the beginning to accomplish one deep, large and even purposely outrageous plan or goal (one woman, separated for many years from her husband, who saw no hope for their union, wanted to reunite with him--and she succeeded; they are now happily remarried). Ben's project was to get his work "out in the world." He had felt for some time that his career was stalemated and he had somehow been banned to Boston, unable to propel himself into the wider world beyond the Boston South Station train terminal. The alchemy of his new partnership with Roz, including her coaching and support, and his experience in her accomplishment group, had a huge impact on Ben's musical career. In the first place, Roz's insistence that the two of them could invent a new form for their relationship resonated like a giant gong in his brain. He realized that not only his marriage but his career and the various aspects of his entire life were all inventions, stories, games, and that he had a choice about how they would unfold. In a cascade of transformations, he shifted from what he calls playing the game of "I am either a success or a failure" to a new game called "I am a contribution." "Unlike success and failure, contribution has no other side," he says in The Art of Possibility . "It is not arrived at by comparison. All at once I found that the fearful question, 'Is it enough?' and the even more fearful question, 'Am I loved for who I am, or for what I have accomplished?' could both be replaced by the joyful question, 'How will I be a contribution today?'" And in his teaching and lecturing since then, he has dedicated himself to instilling a different kind of spirit in music students and audiences alike--at once less competitive, self-centered and fearful, more generous and passionate--recognizing that their very being makes a difference in the world. Ben also changed his entire style of conducting. "Conducting is the last bastion of totalitarianism," he says. "There's a saying, 'every dictator aspires to be a conductor.' I practiced the top-down, hierarchical model of conducting for years. Then I realized something amazing: The conductor, the most physically active person in the entire music world, doesn't make a sound! The conductor's power depends on his ability to make other people powerful." This is not a recipe for laissez faire. Like a good family therapist, like a good leader, the conductor's job is neither to dominate nor be dominated by the orchestra, but, says Zander, "to make sure that every voice is heard . . . . A symphony is the sounding of all the voices. It's true in the family. It's true in the corporation. The conductor, or leader's, job is to make the people in the family sing and make beautiful music-he can't just let them wander all over and drift about in their muck." It is one thing to preach The Art of Possibility to people who are already rich, successful and powerful, but what do the Zanders have to say to more ordinary folk who are not top executives in the Fortune 500 galaxy? How can their upbeat message relate to all of us in the grim aftermath of September 11? They insist that their message is universal, never more so than now, when we seem caught in a downward spiral of pessimism and anxiety. Without denying the terrible reality of recent events or the validity of our fears, the Zanders believe that we have a choice about the way we respond, a choice in the kind of story we tell. We can become part of the downward spiral and our story can be endlessly about fear, loss and anger. Or our story can be about courage, engagement, generosity, compassion, even humor. "We are responsible for the stories we tell," says Roz. "This terrible thing happened, and so where do we go from here?" In threatening times, people often stop taking risks and making the creative leaps that give life meaning and joy. Yet, sometimes, a subtle shift in the conversation, a quiet appeal to our best natures, can make the difference between huddling fearfully in the darkness or walking bravely in the sunlight. Recently, the Board of Directors of the Boston Philharmonic was balking at the expense of offering a free extra concert at Carnegie Hall during an upcoming March trip to New York. But when Ben pointed out "that we were going to do the concert as a gift from the people of Boston to the people of New York and that we would be inviting firemen, policemen and families of the deceased, suddenly, everybody was for it. It's really a question of the story you tell. People are willing to do extraordinary things if they think it's for a higher purpose." In the following interview, the Zanders talk about the concrete practices of living into possibility and the implications of their ideas for the everyday work of therapy. Psychotherapy Networker: There are many self-help books that would at first glance seem to offer the same basic message as The Art of Possibility . What is the difference between what you're talking about and good old positive thinking? Ben Zander: The distinction between The Art of Possibility as a discipline in daily life and positive thinking is very fundamental. Implicitly, positive thinking is a counterbalance to negative thinking. You are trying to find a way to steel yourself against something dark or disturbing--"Look on the bright side." You think positively in spite of the negative or threatening dimension of whatever you happen to be facing. The result is usually an inner tension-that's what in England we call "keeping a stiff upper lip." Roz Zander: The Positive Thinker believes that "bad" exists in the world concretely, rather than "bad" being a feature of our minds and feelings. So, struggle is, therefore, inevitable. The practitioner of possibility, on the other hand, approaches good and bad as the product of our thinking and language. So, for the Possibility Thinker, the question is, "How might I think about this or relate to this, or how might I be about this that would give me a different picture and lead me to act in a different way?" Possibility is always about the space between what's here and what might be. The shape of possibility is open and concentric, like the circle of ripples that a pebble thrown in a pond sends out. The fundamental practice of possibility is learning to distinguish stories that expand the self from those that constrict it. The question that possibility thinking leads to is always--"Given what's happening, what's next? What can I create out of this? What can I learn?" PN: I don't know if many readers of this magazine would disagree with what you have said so far. I suppose the question is how to move from a more philosophical discussion to talking about how these ideas apply in one's everyday life. Ben: The essence of what we're saying is that whatever happens to us inevitably becomes part of the story that we are constantly creating out of our experience. In my own case, I grew up in a family in which my father, who was steeped in Goethe and the importance of constantly striving in life, was always pushing us to more and more achievement. Through much of my life, I was driven in a fierce way to be successful and by the sense that nothing I could ever do would be enough to please my father. I was very needy, because somebody who's striving that hard has a lot of needs. But then, after two failed marriages, it dawned on me that I was paying too high a price for "success." I finally learned that the success I was pursuing was only an invented game and that it wasn't the only game in town. But I needed a discipline, a rigorous discipline--what Roz and I refer to as a set of practices--to make the leap beyond the old game. PN: So, how, concretely, does one go about giving up an all-encompassing game like success? It sounds like a very tall order. Ben: All the practices we talk about will have an impact on the way we are in the world. But in my case, I found that I essentially needed to substitute one pursuit for another. And, for me, that meant switching from devoting my life to playing the game of "success" to a game called "I Am a Contribution." Originally, that shift came out of an extremely complicated situation in which I was very indebted to Roz's coaching. I had spoken to someone from the BBC about an entirely new approach to performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that I had spent many years developing and that I firmly believed would turn the music world upside down. Without telling me, the fellow at the BBC then gave all the tapes and other materials I had given him to another conductor, who eventually performed the Ninth to enormous acclaim in London. Of course, I was furious. Sometime later, I heard that the same conductor was performing Haydn in Boston and I thought, "I'm damn well not going to go and hear him!" But I went anyway, and it was one of the best concerts that I ever heard. So I couldn't resist going up to him afterward, even though I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to tell him who I was. But when he asked me and I told him, he said, "Oh great! I'm delighted to meet you. I wanted to thank you for the wonderful work you've done. I hear you have some other new discoveries about Beethoven. I'd love to hear about them." And I thought, "Ah. Not only has he stolen my old ideas, but he wants to hear my latest ideas. Blast him!" Later, we went out to dinner and, being who I am, I found myself pouring out to him all the new ideas I had been working on. Then he said, "You know, I'm going to be conducting Mahler for the first time in London soon and you're known as such an expert on Mahler. I'd love your help." When I told Roz the story, I was so upset I was beside myself. But instead of sympathizing with me, she suggested that I step out of competition with this man and see myself as a contribution to him and assist him in his performance. Knowing where I was in my life, she proposed it as a kind of adventure, a leap of faith into something that would be a very different kind of game for me. Roz: You can see what a good partner Ben is for me in experimenting with these ideas. Most people would have given me a huge argument over something like that. While Ben may scramble around and insist that I don't understand, he's willing to take risks and try things out that most people would not. Ben: So I went to London riding on that horse joyously, enthusiastically-and walked into the rehearsal hall ready to be a contribution to this other conductor. And when I arrived, he did something I have never seen before or since. He stopped the rehearsal and introduced me by saying, "Ben is a great expert on Mahler and he's come to help us." It was extraordinary. At every break, he and I would talk about the rehearsal and I would give him my reactions. It was fantastic. Then the day before the dress rehearsal, I began to get upset again. He was conducting my performance of Mahler! I called Roz and informed her that I would not be going to the dress rehearsal. And she gently reminded me, "Ben, you said you were going there as a contribution. Are you saying now that it's okay to contribute a little, but not too much?" I decided to go to the dress rehearsal and as soon as I walked into Royal Festival Hall, the conductor immediately turned round and said, "Ben, are you there?" When I said yes, he said, "How's the balance?" I said fine and just like that I was out of my jealousy and resentment and back into the flow of the contribution. And to top it all off, out of the blue, the manager of the orchestra came over to me and said, "I've heard all about what an incredible thing you've been doing this week. I'd like to invite you to conduct the orchestra next year." I firmly believe that such a thing would never have happened had I been operating out of my old competitive mode. My experience is that doors open because of who you're being. What an experience that was for me! It brought home the difference between the deficit position of being resentful and always wanting something beyond what I had versus being a contribution. My whole body shifted after that. It changed me on a molecular level. When I was so caught up in the game of success, there was always another orchestra--aside from the one I was conducting-that I suspected would bring me more success, and so I was never present when I was on the podium. When I began playing the game of contribution, on the other hand, I found there was no better orchestra than the one I was conducting, no better person to be with than the one I was with; in fact, there was no "better." In the game of contribution, you wake up each day and bask in the notion that you are a gift to others. Roz: And that's why the discipline of practices--whether it's declaring yourself a contribution, or learning to speak in the language of possibility or taking 100 percent responsibility for what happens in your life--is so important. It's not that they are true, it's that they take you down entirely different pathways of experience--as Ben says, they can change you at the molecular level, especially when you're going through a difficult stretch. At the beginning of our book, I tell the story of going white water rafting up in northern Maine some years go. A group of us had gotten up at 4:00 a.m. and then taken an hour-long bus ride over rough country roads to get to the river. As all of us rode along, half-asleep, our guide started to prepare us. "There are a few things you must understand before we set off," she said. "If you fall out of the raft, think 'toes to nose.' " And then to make her point, she stood up on one leg and raised the other foot to her face and said, "Think 'toes to nose,' then look for the boat and reach for the oar. That is crucial. If you fall out of the boat, you want to keep your feet off the bottom of the river to avoid getting caught in the rocks." And I thought, "Okay. That's fine, but I'm not going to fall out of the raft." Nevertheless, for the entire ride, she kept repeating the same instructions over and over. By the time we arrived at the river, I had heard it so many times, I felt slightly crazed, but just before we got into the raft the guide asked again, "If you fall out of the boat, what do you say to yourself?" "Toes to nose and look for the boat," we chimed back like a group of obedient gradeschoolers. A little while later, we surged into a stretch of Class 5 rapids and I suddenly was pitched into the water. Roiling about underwater, there was no up or down, neither water nor air nor land. There had never been a boat. There was no anywhere; there was nothing at all. And then I heard the words, "toes to nose . . ." emerging from a void. I pulled together into a ball. And then I heard from inside my head, "Look for the boat . . ." The boat appeared and then an oar. "Reach for the oar . . ." And I then found myself delivered back inside the boat, back into the world, traveling down the river. PN: You seemed to be very affected by Roz's story. What happens as you listen to it? Ben: I tear up and find myself thinking what I would do in that situation and how many times in life we find ourselves looking for something to hold on to that gives us safety and a path to travel. Roz: I frequently tell the story of the raft trip in therapy and use the metaphor "out of the boat" to signify not only being off track in life but also not knowing where the track is anymore. When you are out of the boat, you cannot think your way back in; you have no point of reference. You must call on something that has been established in advance. That's where practices like being a contribution come in. The Psychology of Transformation PN: How would you respond to therapists who are reading this and wondering what distinguishes what you are saying from by-now familiar clinical frameworks, like constructivism and narrative therapy? Roz: I'd agree that we are hardly the first people to talk about how people construct their own reality. If there is anything distinctive about what we are saying, it's that we try to take that idea an extra step and turn it into a disciplined, practical method for dealing with the whole range of experiences that might be called being "out of the boat." I suppose the other thing would be that at a time when, by and large, therapists are being encouraged to be very minimalist in their view of change, we believe that transformation is possible. PN: What exactly do you mean by "transformation"? Ben: When I went into that rehearsal hall as a contribution and gave up not only my own obsession but our culture's obsession with success and competition, suddenly the whole game changed not only for me but for everybody in the room, including the members of the orchestra. They asked me, "Is this common for conductors to work together like this?" And I said, "No more common than it is for heavyweight boxers." That was a true transformation. But I'll tell you another story that in some ways had even more of an effect on me. It was about 12 years ago, just when Roz and I had started working on presenting our ideas about possibility to business and leadership groups. I had given one of my first presentations to a group in Brussels and stopped off in London to visit my father, who was 94 and seemed like he was dying. Beforehand, my brother had warned me, "He's very, very sick and doesn't have any retention. After 15 minutes, he loses it, so be sure not to stay too long." And when I came in, he was extremely frail, and we sat quietly for a few moments and then he asked where I had been. When I told him that I had been giving a talk, he wanted to know what it had been about. And I tried to explain some of our basic ideas about possibility. When I was done, he said, "How fascinating. Do you have a tape of your talk?" I asked, "Would you like to hear it sometime?" And he said, "Could you play it for me now?" So I put some headphones on this shriveled, totally blind, 94-year-old man and he sat there listening to the whole two-hour tape. And when this extraordinary man who had seen striving for greater and greater accomplishment as the only true path to happiness had finished listening, he turned to me and said, "We didn't know anything else." He suddenly understood that there was another way of being available in his life. He recovered from that illness and lived until he was 96. He even attended one of my classes in his wheelchair. But after that first conversation with him, I was released--in some ways I think we both were. I knew I was free. Free to contribute. Free at last to be myself. PN: That's quite a dramatic story. But at a more mundane level, could you describe what you mean by the practices of possibility? Roz: Possibility starts with being able to be with things exactly as they are. You have whatever feeling you have in reaction to what is in front of you, but you don't get lost by adding a story to it all. So, say you're on vacation in Florida and there's a steady downpour. You're unhappy and disappointed and increasingly cranky. You might spend your entire day living through a succession of stories-bracing against the reality of the bad weather, complaining how unfair it is, how nobody warned you about the likelihood of the rain, how your spouse was wrong to not have taken your advice and go to a resort in Tucson. You might even find yourself railing against the heavens, asking why you, personally, are being punished. In other words, you are feeling out of the boat. But at just that moment, another choice would be to be both present to what is happening outside yourself and present to your own reactions, no matter how intense, as in "We are in Florida for our vacation AND it is raining AND it is very disappointing AND this is the way things are." By being present without resistance to what is, you are now free to consider the question, "What do I want to do from here?" which might mean the possibility of resting, having the best food, sex, reading or conversation; going to the movies or walking in the rain; or catching the next flight to Tucson. The important thing is that the capacity to be present to what is happening, without resistance, creates possibility. Ben: Then you can ask the question, "What do I want to do next?" Not, "I hate this!" But getting beyond complaint to ask, "What do I want to see happen now?" It's such a different question. Roz's special gift as a therapist is her ability to ask questions and suggest new frameworks for old problems that enable us to embrace possibility without her ever giving tips or solutions. A classic example of that was her helping me figure out how to help young musicians in my classes truly develop their artistry. The problem was that I kept seeing how the standard system of giving grades encouraged the idea among students that they will only succeed if they compete and get better than the next person. In their playing, I could see that almost all my students imagined someone evaluating every imperfection, or compared themselves in their minds to another, more accomplished, musician doing it much better. I wanted to introduce them to a different paradigm that would show that great art and great music-making live in a different world-not a world of measurement and comparison, but one of taking risks and being willing to make mistakes and taking huge leaps of faith and-yes-contribution. So Roz and I first talked about eliminating grades altogether, but decided that wouldn't be enough in itself and that students would feel cheated of the opportunity for stardom while still remaining focused on their place in the pecking order. Then, Roz had a stroke of genius. We decided I would inform the students on the first day of class that everyone would get an A for the course--with only one requirement. They had to write a letter dated ahead to the end of the academic year, written in the past tense, that described in detail the changes in their musicianship and, more important, their attitudes, feelings and worldview that had earned them the A. With that one stroke, I was able to take myself out of the position of setting expectations for my students to live up to and become an ally with them as I gave them a possibility to live into. It transformed my relationship with them and their relationship to their work.
Listening for Possibility PN: Okay. So let's take this idea of giving an A as a practice in psychotherapy. In the consulting room, you're not, literally, giving out grades, so how might it work? Roz: The wonderful thing about a practice like giving an A, whether it's in a classroom or a therapy room or a marriage, is that it creates a partnership based on each person as pure possibility, rather than being focused on their complaints or foibles or limitations. So, as a therapist, I listen to people talk the way I would listen to a symphony. My job is to hear all the different tones of voice and the range of themes that get played out. I can hear both the adult man complaining about his sexual relationship with his wife and the 5-year-old who doesn't really know what he wants. And then, since I'm more of a painter than a musician, I try to use images to help create a canvas with the client in my office. So, I keep making strokes as a painter does, and then looking at them, interacting with my client in our conversation as we create something together. After listening to someone for a while, I might say something like, "Here's the image I'm getting of who you are and where you might like to be." And we might look together at what comes from the various images, the various strokes on the canvas we make together, adding another and another until a larger whole emerges, sometimes carrying the person years ahead into a vision of the future. We're in a partnership that says in effect, "We are discovering together what life can be." And while we are doing that, the old fears and adaptations pop out at us as barriers to the dream, and this allows us to go back to the experience of the child who, say, felt abandoned in kindergarten and made up his mind that he could never really do anything on his own. And because we have a context of the dream pulling us forward like a huge helium balloon, the partnership has the momentum to examine the ballast and drop what is not necessary for a full life. PN: Do you think that's such a departure from the way most therapists operate? Ben: I'm afraid that there are many therapists who don't understand that. Personally, I had some dreadful experiences in therapy when I was younger. Most of the time, there was a sense of gloom and over-seriousness and being subtly put down that left me more depressed at the end of the session than when I went in. I can recall some sessions in which I actually fell asleep. In a way, a therapist is very much like a conductor. Everything a conductor says or does, from the moment he walks into a room, either enhances and encourages or has the opposite effect. And body language is as important as what you say. A conductor can make a gesture that closes down everybody within a quarter-mile radius. I focus my attention on making gestures that release artistry and not ones that make players feel restricted and closed down. The test of a performance is the shining eyes of the players-if they're shining, we know we're creating possibility. And, you know, Roz doesn't charge for a session if the clients don't come out with shining eyes. And I say to my audiences, "If you don't have a wonderful time at the concert, please ask for your money back." PN: You talk about the discipline of possibility, but, paradoxically, it sounds like the essence of what you're talking about is really maintaining a highly disciplined attitude of exploration and play. Roz: Absolutely. I think you can only go so far in therapy with the rich, tragic material in people's lives. You can so easily get stuck there and not move forward. I firmly believe in short, not long, suffering. I remember working with one couple that was very stuck. He was incredibly worried and frightened of her anger and, when she got angry, she'd get whiny and didn't know how to be soothed. I wanted some image that would capture the relationship indelibly for the two of them without having to spend a lot of time analyzing and describing it - that would shift them out of their customary mode. Do, in the second session, I brought in some props and the moment that I saw her begin to escalate and him to withdraw self-protectively, I reached over and put a bicycle helmet on his head. and he said, "This is perfect I have always been a turtle." I then pulled out hand cream and put some on her hands. It was both an enactment of something very important that cycled between them and a way of playing that got to the heart of things. The symbolic toys with each of them far beyond their marriage, and set them thinking about the childhood pain that they had not adequately expressed and owned, and which, therefore, was spilling into their relationship and causing more pain. But now they had the play space and toys with which to resolve the issues with compassion, humor, and joy.