Professor, author, storyteller, and filmmaker, Murray Nossel joins the program to discuss his diversity story of growing up gay in South Africa and discusses the healing power of listening and hearing on a deep level. Murray also turns the tables on Jennifer and asks her to share her own origin story of moving from being a professional singer to her current work in diversity and inclusion. Discover the importance of valuing your own story and how to shape our stories for maximum impact.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Murray’s diversity story of growing up in South Africa (6:00)
- The power of listening; particularly for marginalized communities (11:00)
- How to listen on a deeper level (16:00)
- Why we don’t have to portray our lives as being perfect (18:30)
- How to become more comfortable with being vulnerable (20:00)
- Jennifer’s origin story (28:30)
- How to find “storytelling gold” in our narratives (33:00)
- The reciprocal relationship between listening and telling (41:20)
- The importance of valuing your story (42:30)
- The power of details in shaping and telling your story (43:30)
- The transformation that can happen when we share our stories (55:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Murray, welcome to The Will to Change.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Thank you so much for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m thrilled to actually be sitting across from you physically. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasuring of doing this with any of our guests on The Will to Change. Just feeling your energy, the connection that we have, it’s palpable, and I hope it comes through—I’m sure it will come through, actually, in the quality of our conversation today.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Thanks, Jennifer. You know, in this time of so much virtual communication, it makes such a difference to be able to sit with someone in real time and in a real space and actually just look at one another like we used to do in the old days. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: Like we used to do. How old are we? (Laughter.) It’s true. There’s something very magical that is exchanged energetically between us when we can be physically co-located and making eye contact. Also, when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness, building the trust and the rapport that we need between us in order to bridge divides. And as my listeners know, this is where we all live, in these divides, trying to build connection and make each other comfortable enough that we can take risks with each other in order to forge new understanding. The virtual world does make that harder, because we don’t have a lot of the cues.
It’s interesting, it also makes it easier because we can, in some ways, be who we want to be and hide our identity and sidestep some stereotypes that may be applied to us, too. When I ask whether a virtual world is a good thing or a bad thing, I’m always mindful of looking at it through the inclusion lens and thinking of pluses and minuses. It’s very interesting.
Murray, I’ve watched your talks, and I really recommend that everybody in our audience Google Murray on YouTube, watch his beautiful work, and your voice is just so resonant and very much of a stage performer, which I can relate it.
I know you have a lot of diversity stories to share. We always start The Will to Change with everyone’s diversity story, because we believe that we all have them, and we may have some unexpected ones that often aren’t visible and maybe are surprising. What would you like to share to acquaint our audience with you?
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay, Jennifer, I’m going to start this story in 1974. I was at a Jewish day school in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the first day of high school, and the teacher said to the class, “Turn to the person next to you and tell one another at story.”
And I was sitting to a classmate by the name of Paul. And Paul turned to me and told me a story, and then he said to me, “Murray, what’s your story?” And I said, “I don’t have one.” “Oh, go on, Murray.” He said, “Everyone has a story.” I said, “No, I just don’t have one.” And I blushed. I could feel the heat rising up out of my chest, up my neck, and my face just went red hot. And I sat there without saying a word.
Anyhow, Paul was not one of the kids who called me names during our lunchtime, our break time. Every time I would walk out of the class and walked onto the playground, I would hear the same things every single day, “Murray, you sissy, you queer. Look at Murray, he’s such a girl, he’s such a pansy.”
And, again, I would blush, the redness would come into my face, which would cause everyone to laugh uproariously. And then I would go and stand in a place where there were no other kids around during break time, just so that I wouldn’t be in the line of fire. But Paul was never one of the kids who would call me a name like that, ever.
Finally, we were in our second to last year of high school. What would you call that in the United States?
JENNIFER BROWN: Junior year.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Junior year. We’re in our junior year. And we’re sitting in Afrikaans class. Now, Afrikaans is the subject where everyone’s saying, “Oh, no, do we have to go to Afrikaans? It’s the language of the government, it’s the language of the oppressors, we hate Afrikaans.” And there stands poor Ms. Smitt, you know, she’s all of 23 years old with freckles and red hair.
And the class is making so much noise. And finally she says, “Okay, children. You’re behaving like children, I’m going to treat you like children. Out of the classroom and line up in the corridor. Boys on the left, girls on the right.
So we line up, and Paul looks down the row at me and he says, “And Murray in the middle.” Well, as you can imagine, my whole body became hot and red and the class roared with laughter.
So I never had anything to do with Paul. We went off to university and we only had one university in our city, the liberal university, Wits University, and I would sit on the library lawns at lunchtime smoking cigarettes, hanging out with my arts friends. You know, all of a sudden, I was the cool guy on campus.
And one day, Paul comes over to me and says to me, “Hi, Murray.” And I turned my head the other way, I don’t even look at him. And that’s that.
20 years later, I arrive in New York City and I’ve given up clinical psychology and I’m here in New York City to do what everyone does in New York City—reinvent myself. I want to be a playwright. So I talk to my friends about my play, and one of them says to me, “You know, Murray, there’s a theater director who’s just arrived from London, and I think it would be a great person to direct your play. He’s also an actor, so he understands the stage.”
And I go and meet this fellow by the name of Seymour Fortan (ph.), a French-Canadian, in a cafe in the East Village. And we talk about my play. And he says, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
Anyhow, this play was done on Houston Street at The Knitting Factory, which has now moved. And it was in their black box theater. And I walk out of the theater and who’s standing there but Paul Browde. Now, Seymour had already said to me on our first meeting, “Murray, you’re from South Africa, you went to Jewish school in Johannesburg, do you know my boyfriend, by any chance?” Paul Browde, there he is, standing in the lobby of The Knitting Factory looking at me.
He comes over to me. Oh, I get—look at my arms!
JENNIFER BROWN: I can see that.
MURRAY NOSSEL: The hair on my arms is standing up.
JENNIFER BROWN: I can actually see it.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Paul says to me, “Murray, what an amazing coincidence.” And I said to him, “Yes, it’s incredible.” He said, “Great play.” I said, “Thank you.” And he said, “Listen, there’s something that’s been bothering me for all these years.” He said, “Do you by any chance remember something that I said to you in Ms. Smitt’s classroom?” He said, “We were standing—” I said, “Yes, we were standing out in the corridor.” And he said to me, “I am so sorry.” He said, “This has been troubling me for years and years.”
Well, Jennifer, I have to tell you something, that it’s as if all these hurts that one experiences, that I experienced during my high school years had lodged themselves somewhere in my body. In fact, when I went first for Alexander Technique lessons and my teacher looked at me and she said to me, “Did you experience a lot of torment as an adolescent?” And I said to her, “Yes, I did.” She said, “I can see it in your body because of the way that you are bent over, you don’t want anyone to see you, and you’re really protecting your stomach.” And I said, “That’s exactly where the pain is.” It was as if I was stabbed in the gut, and those wounds are still there.
Well, when Paul apologized to me, those wounds began to heal. No one had ever apologized to me before that—no one. No one who’d said those words to me. Not the boys who had pinned me down on the table one lunchtime and literally rubbed their fists against my ribs and against my body, calling out sexual and erotic words as they did that, “Are you enjoying that, Murray? Are you liking that?”
You know, these days, you would just describe that as sexual molestation. I never thought of it as that. I thought I’d been just bullied. No one apologized, but Paul did.
We started talking to one another every single day on the phone. And we started to exchange stories of what it had been like to grow up in that school, grow up in Johannesburg, under Apartheid, and hide the fact that we were gay. And, of course, Paul did a much better job of hiding than I did.
Anyhow, it was as if I had met a soul brother, someone who understood my experience the way no one ever had before. And then probably three months into this friendship, with were traveling down to Brooklyn on the train and Paul said to me, “Murray, there’s something I have to tell you.” He said, “I’m HIV positive.” Now, this was 1990, and in those days, to say you were HIV positive was equivalent to saying, “I’m on the pathway towards death.” That’s what it was like. There were no medications, there were no cocktails.
And there I stood in that train, just watching Paul fade away, like all the other men I saw fading away in Greenwich Village where I lived on Christopher Street. Men were dying. Young men our age were dying.
The good news is that Paul is still alive.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yay.
MURRAY NOSSEL: And the story that I’ve just told you is part and parcel of a performance that Paul and I have been doing for many, many years called Two Men Talking. And, in fact, we’ve told this story very much as a vehicle to do exactly what you do, Jennifer, which is to show people the differences and the similarities between us, and that it’s ignorance and it’s fear, and it’s fear of one’s own impulses, that’s often what causes us to strike out at others.
So, Two Men Talking really has been used as a platform for opening up conversations about bullying, homophobia, AIDS phobia.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think there’s an even bigger message that I was noticing in the message of the talk, which is the whole concept of reciprocal listening.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think you describe it, and the example you use is the speaker is the liquid being poured in, and the listener is a container. I thought it was beautiful, it takes two to actually create this interaction. And then, for some reason, I thought of a sieve with a lot of holes in it. At a time when a lot of us are finding our voice, for example through the Me Too movement, or through bringing our full selves to the workplace, which is where I focus.
We’re trying to do this, but it always feels like the listening and the hearing and the true listening to us, and the regard and the valuing of these stories that we are taking so much risk to share, because they’re very vulnerable. They require us to take lots of risks of trust that someone’s going to hear me and do the right thing with my story and really see me, not just tolerate me, not just accept me, but really value me and everything that I bring.
When I imagine the sieve, I feel like that’s what’s happening in the workplace for so many people who are underrepresented, historically marginalized, whether that’s women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities—both visible and invisible—perhaps even veterans that I know in the corporate environment now. It’s like you’re shouting into the void. Nobody knows what to do with these stories, they feel guilty, or they don’t know how to respond. Many people, to their credit, are saying, “How do I get involved? Do I have a story as well?”
That’s where it gets really interesting. I believe we all have different kinds of experiences of exclusion. I might walk past you on the street and not know everything that you just told me, and assume that you wouldn’t get me if I shared who I am with you.
That’s happened to me so many times now. I try to walk through the world with a lens of looking at somebody, stopping that unconscious bias, and saying, “What I think looks like a white man, I have no idea what his life has been like.” That would have been true if I walked by you and so many other people.
In this time of our own enthusiasm about being heard, for many of us, finding our voice and becoming more vocal and demanding to be seen and heard, where is everybody else experiencing the listening of that?
You said to me, “How is Me Too and the conversation being heard by men?” I hadn’t even really thought about that. How do we know how it’s landing? Does it matter that it’s landing? Obviously, it certainly does. It matters a lot how it’s landing. It has to land in order for us to create change.
I feel this tension of us finding our voices, being powerful, and stepping into that power, in many cases, for the first time. Maybe you’re a millennial and maybe you’re coming into your job in your 20s and you want to be seen and heard for everything, all of your intersectionality, all of who you are, but you encounter this corporate environment that’s really asleep, not hearing, not seeing, not valuing—or at least not showing that they are. And they’re seeing people in power who don’t think inclusion or exclusion touches them in any real way.
This is a long prayer for that reciprocity. And I don’t think it’s enough for us to speak so much without checking in to see, are we being heard? How are we being heard? How are people responding? What are they picking up from this, and what are they changing in themselves as a result? I can’t answer that.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Well, I think you’re bringing up a vital point here, Jennifer. What you’re saying, if I were to look at it through the lens of the reciprocal relationship between listening and telling, is that you are really talking about listening—now get this, okay? You’re talking about listening to their listening. You are listening to the way they listen.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am. You’re right. I’m obsessed with that.
MURRAY NOSSEL: So, where does the obligation—let’s not say the obligation—where does the responsibility, the accountability for listening, where does it begin? Not with them. You can’t legislate that other people listen. You cannot. Where listening begins is with you.
I would say that for all people who are wanting to effect change in the world, yes, speaking. Yes, we don’t have our voices, and we feel like we’ve been pushed to the margins and that no one’s listening to what we have to say and we’re going to tell our stories, come hell or high water.
Well, if there’s no one listening, that just makes no difference. And, yes, when you can tune into how people are listening, you listen to their listening. That is the first step towards being able to listen and be open to who they really are.
Let me give you a perfect example of this that’s happening in this moment. I’m coming up to my 40th high school reunion. Yikes. Anyhow, now, the people that I was at high school with in Johannesburg are spread all over the world. So, at the moment, we have a Facebook group, and everyone is posting away. Right?
Well, because I’ve told the Two Men Talking story, and many people who I was at school with know about that, they know that I’ve told on all the bullies, et cetera. And I wrote a note of tremendous appreciation of saying to all my classmates, “I’ve worked very hard at telling my story and being sure that no stone was left unturned, and I’m really eager to hear your stories now. Please share your stories with me, I’m listening.” That’s what I wrote.
JENNIFER BROWN: Good for you.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Now, I’m looking at some of the stories that started to come out. One fellow wrote that he’s been thinking long and hard about whether he should share this story, and he’s decided he’s going to. And he tells about his 50 admissions to rehab for opioid addiction.
Now, he’s talking to a cohort of people who are spread over the world, many, many medical doctors, lawyers, billionaires, Academy Award nominees, authors, you name it. By telling us that he’s had this life in and out of rehab, to this cohort of people who are so achievement oriented and ambitious, he’s basically saying, “Like, I’ve been a failure, and I really worried to be able to tell you people all of this because of the way you’d see me and judge me.”
You cannot imagine the number of people who’ve written to say how grateful they are that he shared that story. Another fellow talks about having been separated from his wife. However, the vast majority of the stories are literally formulaic. I could write a formula for you about how the stories go: I finished university, I met my wife, we moved to—Canada, Australia, United States, England, or stayed in South Africa. Right? I started working at a hospital, I had two beautiful children, I was promoted to this position. My children are now grown up, they’ve been to university, they are a lawyer and a whatever, and I’m so proud of them and I couldn’t be happier. That’s the story.
And the majority of the stories follow exactly that formula. I had to scratch my head and think to myself, “Come on. We know it’s not quite as simple as that.” You know? So what’s being left out? All the things that we as human beings are subject to—illness, the death of parents, the death of siblings, failures of various kinds—all those things that are less than perfect, all those things that aren’t conforming to that depiction of the perfect life.
I’m amazed by how many people want to portray themselves to their old high school classmates as lives that are seamless and perfect. We know that’s not true. Sometimes I really have the intention of sharing my own story as a way of permitting people to share theirs. Come on, let’s get to a deeper level over here and talk about what really happened, rather than this formula that is a way of trying to manage your image in the world.
JENNIFER BROWN: Talk about what corporate leaders are terrified to do—be vulnerable to that, to have someone go first and extend the permission. You’re right.
On the part of underrepresented talent, what I hear is, “I’m tired of telling my story and not being met halfway.” The buzzword now is “emotional labor,” and it’s real. I’m sure, like me, you must think, “Do I have to tell this story again? Do I have to go to this very deep, dark place around being LGBTQ and being bullied or feeling judged or being unsafe?” There are so many deeply disturbing stories about what happened to all of us as we were growing up. I was relatively unscathed from a lot of that because of my socioeconomic background, my ethnicity, certain things that cushioned my coming-out process, or loving parents that didn’t drop me off at the bus station and say, “You’re on your own.”
I’m not always in the mood to get up and tell the deep story over and over again in order the give permission to others and do this labor. Yet, I agree with you that it is amazing the transformation that it sparks in people, the permission, the invitation. If I’m willing to be seen, would you be willing to be seen? People walk through that door a lot.
In my world, we deal with a lot of fatigue around “going first.” I have to say, every time I go first, whether I’m in the mood or not, I’m a stage performer, so you transcend the mood that you happen to be in because you know that you’re there to do a job. You’re there to witness your own story, and you never know what it’s going to open for others.
It has worked every time in so many unexpected ways. You and I speak a lot, and I think it’s transformational. It’s a little slice of my life, a story that I thought wouldn’t matter. It has this catalytic effect. I love it, and it keeps reminding me that I have to get back up and do it again and again and again and that is my job, among many other things.
I keep mining my own stories to wonder, “What is the story I haven’t told yet that feels even more vulnerable?” And there are old stories, there are stories that are happening that I’m not ready to talk about or that I don’t yet have the words for, or the wound is too fresh. You and I talked about how we know when a story is ready to come out of the oven, not wanting to take it out prematurely, et cetera.
Do you have advice for people for whom this is a very unfamiliar act? Those people on your Facebook group who are giving you the resume of their lives, but they don’t have the comfort, they don’t think it’s the place, and they might have good reasons for that. The problem is that we are living in this virtual world where we risk becoming incredibly superficial with each other. I’m not willing to let leaders, in particular, in organizations who might look a certain way, I’m not willing to let them get away with just the resume version of their life.
Some of us can’t be vulnerable, and others get away with not being vulnerable. It’s not only not fair, but it’s not good leadership. Now we want to see the whole leader. We talk a lot about expectations of younger talent I particular to say, “I matter, and you matter, but I want to know who you are. I don’t want you to just whitewash or sanitize your life. I want to know that you bleed, I want to feel who you are, I want you to be authentic, I want you to know what inclusion and diversity means to you.” Even if you’ve had this life that looks so perfect on paper, you have the corner office or you have that job. I find a lot of leaders aren’t willing or able to develop this muscle.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Of listening to who’s there. Once again, you’re talking about listening. Right? My listening is open to what you have to say. Now, if you as a leader can really communicate that to the people who are on your team or who are reporting to you, if you are truly open, without judgment, without interpretation, without making meaning and you say, “I’m ready to hear what you have to say.”
I have a naughty little—
JENNIFER BROWN: Trick?
MURRAY NOSSEL:—trick. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m listening!
MURRAY NOSSEL: And that truck is to ask you right now, Jennifer, if you will, tell me one of your stories, one of the older stories. You’ll be telling that story into my listening right now. Now, if you think that listening, as you’ve suggested before, the way that I describe listening is as a bowl, and telling is the liquid poured into that bowl. Just as the bowl gives the liquid its shape, the listening gives the telling its shape.
Well, who’s listening to you right now is me. And I’ve never heard your story before, and I’m very curious to hear some part of your story.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, Murray.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s very nice. I would love to be listened to in partnership with you, because I’d love to know how it impacts you. I’m listening to your listening.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Everybody on The Will to Change probably knows one of the stories I tell, which I found quite by accident when I was asked to do a TED Talk eight years ago. I was under time pressure, I had to write my eight minutes.
I had been an opera singer who had to have vocal surgery twice when I was training in New York. It was heartbreaking and horrible. I had so many dreams that I felt were being dashed and my life was being forced to take a turn that I didn’t want it to.
I quite literally faced losing my voice. What I came to understand in subsequent years, as I had to reinvent and find another way to be heard in the world, and perhaps find a different thing to say in the world besides a beautiful song, which I have subsequently done. I was meant to use my voice, just not as a singer. That fighting to regain it and valuing it differently, and then being able to be the container and the bowl for everyone else’s stories, and to carry those with me into the C suite, which is what I do now, quite literally. The depth of being able to do that, it’s all about the voice, but I’m not sure it’s about my voice, it’s about the many voices that I am representing.
I always say I’m the Trojan horse and I have an army behind me and inside me, but I can get through the castle walls and I can be heard, in a way because of the way I look, people may let their guard down around me. Maybe not because of my gender, but maybe because of my ethnicity, or maybe because of how I speak and how I was educated, right? Maybe how I listen, maybe how I am coming from a place of kindness, love, and generosity, even when I’m in a room of people that I could dismiss as my oppressor.
Make no mistake, I still start to sweat. I turn red, I try the hide it, but sometimes I’m in pretty tricky situations where I’m not feeling valued. But I try to hide that and do what I need to do and make the money I do and be the expert that I am and all of these things.
It’s very interesting. It requires the courageousness of the voice, but it is many voices in mine. It is an honor, it is such a deep and transformative honor to use my voice in this way. It’s so much deeper than singing on the stage. I know music moves all of us and it’s transcendent, but the actual message I’m carrying is one where if I’m carrying the voice of the voiceless alongside me, it is very powerful. It feels like a very scared responsibility.
That’s LGBT people, too, but it’s way bigger than that. It’s every woman who hasn’t been heard, it’s every person of color who is stereotyped for being too loudly passionate. It is the LGBT person who might be written off or name-called and bullied. It is all of us, but we all have a level of privilege that allows us to be somehow safer than someone else. And whenever you’re safer, you need to do something with that safety. That’s what I do every day.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Well, what you’re showing to people through your story is that you have what it takes to get through a significant challenge. And you have the “stuff” that allowed you to face the dissolution of your own dream and to reinvent yourself.
Now, I have a question for you. I would love you to tell me in very, very factual ways without explaining to me at all. Just tell me in very factual ways, can you tell me when you first started singing? At what age did you start singing?
JENNIFER BROWN: Four.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Four? And would you take me into your household and show me what I would have seen or heard for that matter?
JENNIFER BROWN: Music everywhere, musical parents, piano.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Who played the piano?
JENNIFER BROWN: Everyone.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Like who?
JENNIFER BROWN: Both parents.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Your mom and your dad.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Played other instruments. Family always reading music, singing together.
MURRAY NOSSEL: What did you sing?
JENNIFER BROWN: Classical music, folk music.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Give me the name of a song.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, gosh. We would sing a lot of rounds.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Like?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, Green Grow the Rushes, Ho. My mom had songbooks everywhere, they were from Girl Scouting and camping and from that tradition of folk singing.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay, so you would all sit around. Where were you from?
JENNIFER BROWN: In California.
MURRAY NOSSEL: You were in California. You would all sit around and sing Green Grow the Rushes, Ho in a round?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
MURRAY NOSSEL: And you were four years old?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay. Then, just give me another snapshot of how your vocal career developed.
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, my parents put me through a lot of musical training. I liked it. I didn’t like it, as a kid won’t, didn’t like practicing, but I loved it because it was easy and natural and I loved being on the stage.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay, who did they send you to to learn?
JENNIFER BROWN: Vocal teachers.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay, who was the most significant of your vocal teachers?
JENNIFER BROWN: I don’t know if I can remember names. I went to a lot of different people.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Anyone that made an impression?
JENNIFER BROWN: I’d say the conductors I worked with in various choruses. I loved being a student, I would pay very close attention to how they instructed us as a group. I would be in a section, so I’d be in the soprano section and I’d be reading music and listening. I loved group singing. I loved chamber music. I didn’t so much want to be a soloist, but I loved the blend that we tried to achieve as we would be standing on stage in four-part, six-part, eight-part, orchestra, et cetera.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Now, that’s an interesting parallel, isn’t it? In a sense, what you’re saying to me about the work that you do now is that you’re having to listen to your audience’s listening while you’re speaking. What you’re saying about being in these choruses is that, in a sense, you had to be listening while you were singing because you had to hear what everybody else was doing in order to be a part of, and yet you were a separate voice.
So it sounds like part of what the conductor was doing was teaching you how to balance those two things.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, you’re absolutely right. You’re totally right. I learned about enlisting what we now call “stakeholders,” to use business terminology, always thinking about the different constituents in a conversation, in an audience, on the stage. How are people taking information in? How are they working together to coordinate and sing, as we say, maybe from the same message, but with our respective voices? It’s a lot like the organization, it’s a lot like a team, a leadership group, a CEO, a group of female employees coming together saying, “You will do this, I will do this,” and we can all bring things to the potluck and create something that is stronger than each individual part. You’re right, the musical metaphor is so useful for business.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Do you remember any of these conductors in particular?
JENNIFER BROWN: Lucky me, I sang with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I was in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus when I lived in Boston in my 20s. We worked with Seiji Ozawa, who was the conductor of the Boston Symphony.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay, now, tell me what made him such a great conductor?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my gosh. He was passionate and dedicated to his vision for how a piece should sound. He was inclusive and paying attention and able to listen to so many different parts of the orchestra and the choir. I mean, if you think about, there are 250 people on stage. And you have every kind of percussion, every section in the orchestra, you had four or five or six sections of different kinds of vocalists in different fachs, which is vocal type. And he has an audience behind him that he’s creating an experience for.
It’s a fascinating role. I loved watching someone embody that, but I think I probably saw myself in that role.
MURRAY NOSSEL: You are talking about leadership.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
MURRAY NOSSEL: That’s exactly what you’re talking about. Now, isn’t that conductor just exactly like the leader in a company? Right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely.
MURRAY NOSSEL: And what he’s doing through his leadership is he is inviting you to identify with him, that’s what you were doing. You saw yourself as him. You imagined yourself as him. That’s what a great leader does. He or she or they are generously sharing of themselves as an inspiration to you to find those same qualities in yourself.
That’s what you were saying. You were noticing those qualities in you. And what he was doing, as any great business leader would do, is paying attention to the number of constituents—the employees, the subcontractors, the contractors, the clients, you name it. Isn’t that what we’re doing in business? We have to be listening quadraphonically in so many different ways.
Now, let me ask you something: Do you usually tell the story of this conductor?
JENNIFER BROWN: No. I may add it to my understanding of myself and how I developed this curiosity and this want to be the one that gets to have the challenge of listening to so many. I know it would probably strike terror into a lot of people who can’t imagine—being a conductor is one of the hardest and rarest of the professions because you have be organized, you have to be cool under pressure, you’ve got be quadraphonically listening—not just what you’re seeing, but the audience behind you, because your back is to the audience the whole time.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Wow.
JENNIFER BROWN: Imagine being able to listen through your back.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Wow. Wow.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? So, in a way, you’re a pass-through, there’s energy that is passing through you, you’re a prism that’s refracting the light on both sides of you and all around you. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it, because when you do what I get to do every day, and what you do Murray, you’re standing there and all these things are coming through you, and they’re all passing through you. Yet, you’re guiding them. You’re guiding them, you’re nudging them, you’re encouraging them, you’re redirecting them, you’re connecting the dots.
I know the speakers who listen to us will relate to this. It is that moment of flow when I know I step off the stage, and I don’t even know what occurred because something else takes over.
MURRAY NOSSEL: You were in it.
JENNIFER BROWN: In it.
MURRAY NOSSEL: You were totally present in the moment.
JENNIFER BROWN: In it. And what a neat feeling.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Now, let me tell you something about storytelling here, and what I think is dynamite about your story.
When you started telling me specifically what goes on in the orchestra, the strings are here, the voices are there—you give me, in minute detail without telling about, but literally just describing each thing. Now, why, Jennifer, do I find that so intoxicating and incredibly interesting to listen to? Because I’ve never been in a choir, I’ve never been part of the Boston Symphony, I’ve never been to Tanglewood. This is your specific expertise that you are sharing with me—a world that I’ve never had anything to do with. And you are generously taking me into that world.
That is what I call a diversity experience. It’s diverse. It diverges from my experience. And when you give yourself permission to say what this was like for you, to be there, to watch that conductor with his back to the audience, you take us there because it’s exotic for most of us. And then all you have to say, all you have to say after you’ve built that all up is what I’m going to ask you next.
So, tell me about your first vocal surgery. What happened that led you to have to have vocal surgery?
JENNIFER BROWN: I was not able to hit high notes.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay, how did you know that? What would happen?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, when you’re in operatic training, you’re vocalizing all the time. I’m picking arias to sing, I’m rehearsing with coaches, I’m preparing for performances. I would get very hoarse and lose my voice quickly. The high notes would just disappear.
MURRAY NOSSEL: So, give me an example of a piece that you may have been working on which had such a high note which you couldn’t reach.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m blanking on some of the arias. I mean, it might have been a Mozart aria from an opera.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay. Let’s just take that for argument’s sake. As my mother always says, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” (Laughter.)
Give us an example. In terms of the genuineness of your story, it’s not going to make any difference whether it was the Marriage of Figaro or something else. Right? Just give me the name of any aria from Mozart.
JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s see. Let’s see. Oh, my gosh, I’m blanking. Why am I blanking! Voi Che Sapete.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay.
JENNIFER BROWN: (Sings.) We’ve heard that.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Wow, that’s beautiful. Now, do you ever sing as part of your speaking?
JENNIFER BROWN: I play some singing at the beginning of my talk. I prepare the audience and they have no idea where the voice is coming from. And they say, “We thought that was just intermission music, we didn’t know.” And then the very first thing I say is, “That was me, with orchestra, the last time I sang.”
MURRAY NOSSEL: Okay, now when you actually sing for me right now, that is very dramatic, too. You just sang a little note. Why do I say that’s so important? Because it’s you, it’s what differentiates you, okay?
Let’s talk. You were singing this piece, which you’ve just sung for me beautifully, and then you noticed you couldn’t hit the high note. And then what happened?
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s the conversation nobody ever wants to have—
MURRAY NOSSEL: No, no. Don’t explain it to me.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay, no explaining.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Just tell me what happened.
JENNIFER BROWN: Just what happened. I found a doctor, got examined, and saw that there was actually something interrupting the vocal cords from working.
MURRAY NOSSEL: He showed you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, literally.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Or she.
JENNIFER BROWN: Literally.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Was the doctor a woman or a man?
JENNIFER BROWN: Several doctors, but a man.
MURRAY NOSSEL: You’ll see, isn’t it interesting how I automatically went to, “What did he say?” Isn’t that interesting? Here I am—
JENNIFER BROWN: We should know better. (Laughter.)
MURRAY NOSSEL: I am the queerest man you could ever wish to meet, and yet look at that automatic assumption.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, indeed.
MURRAY NOSSEL: So he shows you, what was it? An X-ray?
JENNIFER BROWN: No. This is very unpleasant. They either stick a long strobe down your nose, it has a camera, and it strobe-lights your vocal cords, which actually flap like a humming bird’s wings. They flap too quickly for the eye to see, so the strobe slows it down and then records the action of the vocal cords, and you can actually see what may be on the underside and not visible to the eye. In the case of the vocal cords, it’s the edge of the cords that come together like wings coming together. They beat a thousand times fast. The only way you can watch them is a strobe that slows them down. And when you slow them down, they’re these beautiful undulating—like a manta ray.
MURRAY NOSSEL: And what did you see?
JENNIFER BROWN: There was something on one of my vocal cords.
MURRAY NOSSEL: What was the something?
JENNIFER BROWN: It was a cyst.
MURRAY NOSSEL: A cyst. Now, what you’ve just told me right now is storytelling gold. That’s what I call “storytelling gold.” I’m mesmerized. I’m absolutely mesmerized by those details. Wow. I didn’t know about that. Have you ever hard Steve Job’s commencement speech at Stanford University? You want to talk about gory details, he doesn’t spare the audience anything.
JENNIFER BROWN: No, he doesn’t.
MURRAY NOSSEL: So, we get this about you, and then what happened? What did the doctor say?
JENNIFER BROWN: He said, “You have to have surgery.” Terrifying. Opera singers lie about having had surgery all the time. It’s not something you want to admit that you did or had to have. It made me sad and afraid and depressed not knowing just what was going to happen next.
MURRAY NOSSEL: What happened? Why did you finally stop?
JENNIFER BROWN: Stop singing?
MURRAY NOSSEL: Yes, in those choral groups.
JENNIFER BROWN: Because this had happened several times, and I knew I could not count on my instrument anymore.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Wow. I couldn’t count on my instrument, which is a very—that must be a tough one.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Could you drop me into a conversation where you might have talked to someone about this decision that you had to make?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. I remember I had an agent at the time. I fought very hard to have an agent and really hustled. I remember calling that agent—there was a letter, but I think it was a call, too, to say, “Don’t call me anymore, I’m pulling out. I’m done. I can’t make this work. No matter if I want to or not, it doesn’t matter. I can’t.”
I had a lot of complicated feelings, obviously, about something I had worked so hard to procure and saying, “Move on to the next person, because I’m not your person anymore.” And not knowing what was going to be next.
I knew I needed to do that. I knew I needed to make it concrete and enforce it in my own heart and mind that this chapter was closing. How many of us like to end relationships like that? Most people would kill to have that, and I worked really hard for it, I was lucky to have it. It’s a strange feeling to have all of the will in the world, but to not have a willing instrument.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Wow. That’s what I would call your origin story. It’s an incredibly potent origin story because it comes to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it now. It’s just the perfect answer to those two questions. You don’t even have to explain it to me, I get it. I get why you do the work that you do now, simply from telling me the facts of the case.
Now, remember that there’s a reciprocal relationship between listening and telling. In other words, the telling creates the listening, and the listening creates the telling. Now that I know in such minute detail about what you went through, which is what I recognize as the real story because you’re showing me, not telling me. I see you now in a completely different way. I feel like I know you in a completely different way, and I know why you do what you do.
What I’m saying, in a sense, is with these stories, when you feel like you’re burned out from telling your story or you’ve had enough or you can’t tell it again, look at it differently. Defamiliarize yourself from your own story. Just put a magnifying glass on it and look at the details. Always, you will find gems.
It’s the same with listening to the stories of others. Extract the details from them. If I were talking to one of my classmates who’s written one of these pat, formulaic stories on the class of ’78, “Well, could you tell me about your emigration when you worked in Canada, in the north of Canada where it’s freezing? You moved there from South Africa, what was that like to move to such a freezing cold place? Did you have any friends? What was that like to be so far from your family?”
Before you know it, you’ll get a story of what that person’s gone through. It’s just a matter of penetrating what they give you, rather than expecting them to come up with some deliverable that wouldn’t be obvious to them.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so beautiful. Murray, we’re almost out of time, but there are so many deeper levels I was able to access through being asked your questions, and new understanding about my own origin, and dots that I hadn’t connected into why I love the work I do so much and why it’s so deeply fulfilling. It feels like it has been always there, actually, even into my childhood. There’s a thread that has run through everything. There often is for all of us, it’s just a matter of holding our magnifying glass up and saying, “What is it actually? What are the facts?”
I also love that you said, “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. The facts speak for themselves.” When you hesitate to value your story or to give yourself permission, maybe you need a coach and somebody who is holding a container and asking the beautiful questions that you’re asking. That’s an art in and of itself, to create that space for someone to do the exploration, to answer the questions, and discover what will become maybe their TED Talk someday. We all have one in us.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: I just appreciate that we had this interaction and people got to hear what this way of interacting is. The role of it in business cannot be underestimated. It is the connection and the ability to hold each other’s stories and then move forward knowing you have my back as I tell it. Because we had this conversation, I now go on the stage and I say, “Well, Murray thought it was interesting. Murray thought it was transformative.” I thought it was boring, but now it has a whole different level of meaning. You helped add that to it.
For our listeners, we talk a lot about storytelling and how we have this little seedling of our truth, but if we hold it up to the direct sunlight, overwater it, or put it into a corner and deny it the food that it needs—in this case, the food is listening and questions and somebody to hold that space—our seedling can never become what it needs to become for all of us in the organization. Wherever you sit, we have to ensure that the seedling has a chance to grow and to be seen and provide shade. It’s like the giving tree.
Our story has a job to do. All of our stories need to be seen and heard by someone else so that they can be transformed by them. To me, organizations that have the ability to listen and who encourage that are alive organizations, they’ve vibrant, they are inclusive.
MURRAY NOSSEL: And they’re tapping into the unique expertise of every single one of their members. When I started to pay attention to your story and be curious about where your talent was first revealed and how you developed that talent as a singer, and then what happened, I’m getting to what makes you an expert.
Now, every single person who works in a company is an expert at something. It might be that you don’t know that one of the people who works for you is an expert gardener. And maybe because that person is an expert gardener, they’re very good at seeing things grow. Maybe that person should be involved in strategy, because they are going see that you grow towards the fulfillment of your business plan.
People’s expertise hides out in these invisible areas until such time as you allow people to express who they really are and what they really are like and what truly interests them, and that’s the gold. Your gold is your experience. I get that so clearly.
Yes, it’s all there. As you say, just like the seedling, the potential is all there, it’s just a matter of watering it and giving it the correct conditions—listening—so that it can grow.
JENNIFER BROWN: Murray, I think our listeners are just going to love this. It’s healing balm for the soul, and it’s also tremendous encouragement to continue to strive for connection in very polarizing times. I want to thank you and encourage people to read your new book. Tell us a little bit more about it. It’s all about storytelling.
MURRAY NOSSEL: It’s called Powered by Storytelling, and it’s all about transforming business communication through storytelling. The title is Powered by Storytelling: Excavate, Craft, and Present Stories to Transform Business Communication. Just came out in April, and it’s published by McGraw Hill. Pretty much everything that I’ve said to you in terms of method and technique today is in my book. I give quite a few examples of people who’ve used these techniques of telling personal stories as a way of bringing their teams together, including a person who was as concert pianist who, at the age of ten, had a breakdown and ended up having to leave music as a career and went into business and finance.
Yes, I give lots of examples of business leaders who’ve used these methods to really transform their workplaces.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. I hope everyone researches Murray. Watch his talks. Your presentation is just as profound as what you say. Thank you for joining us on The Will to Change.
MURRAY NOSSEL: Thanks so much, Jennifer. It was a pleasure to talk to you and listen to you.
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