Originally published in Forbes.com
I am talking with Peter Himmelman, a Grammy-nominated musician and Bob Dylan’s son-in-law, about how he uses songwriting to help people do their jobs better. We’ve only just met, and before I know it he has come up with a song about me:
“I walk in the sunlight, my eyes burning hot
I look around and see fava beans in the pot
I burst in from the street into the front door
My feet feel the sensation of that cold tile floor.”
For a moment, I feel understood, even celebrated. For those of us who grew up in the desert, a cold floor under our feet feels like home. My childhood experience of walking in from the blinding light and finding comfort in a cold floor under my feet is now a song!
The jolt of connection and validation I felt is what professor Jane Dutton of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan calls a “high-quality connection.” High-quality connections are interactions in which you feel authentically seen and appreciated by another person. They can be momentary, enacted between two strangers, or they can happen between people who have known each other all their lives. “High-quality connections occur when people feel attuned to each other and experience a sense of worth and value,” says professor Dutton. “Their effect is a greater energy and capacity for action.”
Through his company, Big Muse, Himmelman uses his skills as a musician, honed by decades as a songwriter and television composer (he scored Judging Amy and Bones), to create powerful moments of connection that unblock the fears that hold us back. The core insight of his method is that songs connect people to each other. As Keith Richards wrote in his memoir, Life, “To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of bases.” Through the process of writing songs about each other, participants in Big Muse workshops form momentary high-quality connections.
Research shows that high-quality connections have concrete physiological benefits. One study found, for example, that feelings of connectedness predicted increases in vagal tone, the variability in heart rate associated with respiratory patterns that is widely considered an objective proxy for physical health. They improve cognitive functioning by broadening people’s capacities for thinking and learning. They also increase people’s attachment to their teams and organizations. According to Dutton, high-quality connections are good for organizations because they “change the quality of the soil in which people are growing. They increase people’s capacity and desire to collaborate and to be flexible. They also increase the meaningfulness of people’s ties to each other and the whole group so they are more engaged. Increasing the overall level of awareness and empathy is a base condition for being able to do anything together better. It’s not just about performing, it’s about being and growing.”
The power of feeling seen is the reason why hundreds of thousands of people lined up to receive the full attention of performance artist Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 “The Artist is Present” event. Having someone’s undivided attention is a rare and affecting experience, even when it happens for only a few minutes. When we feel that we have been understood, we can take a step closer to realizing our full human potential. Himmelman’s songwriting exercise, which he uses in the Big Muse workshops, creates that feeling of being seen and celebrated. People pair up, interview each other according to his guidelines, and write a song that Himmelman sets to music. The experience creates a high-quality connection, and the song itself is a multisensory remembrance of that connection.
“There’s a poignancy every time I do this,” he told me, “because everyone has a sense of ‘Wow, we’ve come to know one another in this incredibly deep way.’ So there’s a team-building aspect. But it’s also digging up who we are, what our values are, what we stand for. Being steeped and cognizant about them allows us to be in that excellent condition for creating whatever it is we want to create. It doesn’t matter what we’re creating, it could be medical equipment.” Writing the song, feeling seen and understood, relaxes people’s fears – which according to Himmelman stem from our fear of abandonment – and creates the kind of openness that artists experience in their most creative moments. As a result, Himmelman says, people “rev up their engines of possibilities.”
Big Muse’s clients, who range from big corporations such as Gap, McDonalds, and Pandora to hospitals, nonprofits, and academic departments, attest to the long-term creativity boost of his workshops. “He’s authentic,” said Lisa Donohue, CEO of Starcom, a media communications agency with more than 1,200 employees and an estimated $11.1 billion in billings. Donohue recently brought Himmelman to speak as part of an initiative to make Starcom’s culture more creative and to encourage employees to take risks.
In attempting a cultural transformation, Donohue faced one of the most common roadblocks to creativity: fear. Risk-aversion is pervasive in all kinds of organizations. People often prefer to stay on a safe path and maintain the status quo than risk failure. But they cannot realize their full potential when they are driven by fear.
“Peter was very inspirational in making that cultural shift,” Donohue said. She had brought in other speakers, mostly entrepreneurs who described how they had talked themselves out of their fears. “What Peter added was the human and authentic element. He got into the ethos of what makes us avoid risk. He went deeper into the rational and irrational, the heart and the mind of it, whereas the entrepreneurs were more into the mind part of it, the rational part. Given that our platform is that we are a human experience company, it is really important that we bring that emotion into what we do.”
Really great musicians are the ones who make themselves vulnerable in their music, and the songs they create are great because they touch us emotionally. Through Big Muse, Himmelman injects our pseudo-rational bureaucratic organizations with that vulnerability so that people bring more of their humanness to their everyday work lives.