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Respect, the key to true community


an essay by Dan Evans

I’d like to share how a process that I have developed for coaching builds true communities.   I believe this process could be a template for a more harmonious and productive society.


Firstly, l’ll explain the unorthodox origins from which this process emerged and then I’ll show how profoundly damaging criticism is.  Lastly, I’ll explain how my process builds real communities by eliminating criticism entirely.

Origins and success
In 1992 I left a management position in industry to pursue a career as a musician.  To compliment my growing performance and recording income, I designed some training courses for musicians.  The most popular of these was a voice workshop called 'Everyone Can Sing', for all levels and styles of singer.


Everyone Can Sing has been hugely successful.  In over twenty years I’ve coached 4,500 students, classes have sold out, students have come from all over Europe and many have been moved by the experience.  The feedback is simply amazing.  Comments like this are typical: ‘environment and atmosphere magical - Dan has an amazing gift to get the absolute best from the people he meets - the way he bonded the group of total strangers into a group of friends is not only a talent but a gift! I will treasure the memory that I have stored from this weekend’


Although this course is open to all levels and styles, the title Everyone Can Sing attracts people who have issues with their singing voice. About a third of my students believe they can’t sing or are not sure if they can sing in tune.  Among the many reasons for this is that they may have been labelled ‘tone deaf’ or have a hearing impairment, or they may have failed an audition to join a choir or been told to mime in the school choir.  A few of them have sought private tuition only to have the tutor give up on them.  Against this challenging demographic and only spending a few minutes on intonation (singing in tune), all but very few students leave my weekend class singing nicely in tune.  Fewer than ten of the four thousand students still struggled with pitching by the end of the course (and even these progressed significantly), representing a success rate on this criteria of at least 99.75%. 


Dan in teaching mode

Criticism and confidence
These non-singers believed they can’t sing because their singing has been criticised, typically by people important in their lives like parents, school teachers, partners or tutors.  A single critical comment can inhibit someone from singing for twenty, forty or even sixty years.  Then they attend my class only to find that they can sing perfectly well.  The traditional approach to singing has helped some, but the profoundly damaging criticism of the traditional approach has inhibited many others.  Moreover, these inhibited singers are not life's failures.  They include executives and CEOs, leaders in their field.  


Twenty years ago one important premise of my class was that: criticism invariably erodes confidence.  Today that premise has evolved into: criticism is totally unnecessary, invariably damaging and frequently wrong.  My coaching process eliminates criticism completely.  Not only are students not criticised but they know from the outset that they are not going to be.  In this safe environment, students of all levels are prepared to take risks and, with a little help, quickly achieve excellent results.  Indeed the results are often more than you might expect from just a weekend course.  One student summed this up: 'our tutor presented the course in a way that allowed all students to develop in a positive way at their own pace and developed a wonderful sense of a secure environment - this created a beautiful bonding amongst a group who embraced the philosophy of the course and achieved more than we could ever have thought possible'


Sadly, traditional wisdom and our cultural values make us believe that criticism is necessary and even appropriate.  Some students are so conditioned by our critical culture that they ask me at the start of a course: "how will I get better if you don’t tell what I’m doing wrong?".  My response is: 'let's see how much you improve when we praise what you do well".  So like many other tutors, I use the very constructive power of positive reinforcement.  Students are praised for their existing strengths and also praised when they improve.  In this regard I'm not unique but I believe my process is unique in banishing criticism completely.   American psychologist Nancy Kline in her book Time To Think explores corrective behaviours and different ratios of appreciation to criticism.  She settles on a ration of 5:1 (five appreciative comments for every criticism) in her own teaching but, despite seeing the dangers, she doesn't make that leap of faith and remove the damaging criticism altogether.


There's a big difference between criticism and help.  Help is normally solicited and that in itself is an important factor.  Unsolicited criticism doesn't just damage the confidence of the person receiving it, it damages the relationship between the two people.  Trust between them will have been eroded.  It's clear to me, after working with these issues for twenty years, that criticism does not serve the needs of the recipient but the needs of the giver.  Consequently it's inappropriate to give unsolicited criticism and, once you understand the motives behind it, you realise that it's a bad habit.  Because these ideas challenge tradition, they can unsettle staunch conventionalists but this is not hippy nonsense, it really does work.  I live in the real world and understand the need to control inappropriate behaviours in wayward employees and to stop children from having accidents.  These are necessary things but unsolicited criticism where there is no risk is unnecessary and damaging.


Paul McKenna 


Furthermore, the cultural bad habit of criticism nurtures negativity.  In a critical culture we are constantly on the look-out for faults.  This might be appropriate behaviour in a test laboratory, but it's harmful in other contexts.  Having performed and taught music in both the UK and the USA, the American culture I have seen seems much more positive than ours in Britain.  Some years ago I was asked to write an article on this topic for MK Arts, a local arts magazine.  The famous hypnotherapist and self-improvement guru, Paul McKenna has a similar view.  He was born in England and now lives in California.  In a recent interview for the Sunday Times Magazine he commented: 'There is too much of a knocking mentality in Britain. In the US they encourage you to better yourself, but here it’s all: “Don’t get ideas above your station”. It’s a nasty attitude that undermines this country.’  The process that I use to coach generates a positive ethos, by looking for the good.  Part of this process I call 'the engine'.   


The engine
Confidence is a critical prerequisite to certain activities.  For example in sales, public speaking, sports and leadership.  There are critical moments when the outcome is significantly determined by how much confidence was demonstrated.  Confidence has other benefits too.  It doesn't just help with the task in hand, it helps people with other aspects of their work and their private lives too.  With enhanced self-esteem, we feel less threatened when challenged and so less stressed and this enhances our well-being and happiness.  


The engine can be integrated into other events and used for coaching a variety of topics.  When I was asked to develop and present some public speaking courses for  project managers and consultants at Abbey National, I used the engine.  As well as seeing major developments in the students' presentation skills, there was strong and clear evidence of positivity and team work.  The feedback was excellent: 'Wow. Fantastic course' wrote one of the first participants.  Another wrote: 'Best course I've ever been on'  and yet the course was quickly developed and I was relatively new to this work at the time.  This student clearly had a transformative experience and I attribute that to the engine.   The real beauty of this process is that it's enjoyable for the participants.   


Dan's Engine chart


The 3 virtues of the engine are confidence, teamwork and positivity and the engine's unique qualities are

  1. limiting beliefs are banished in tutor and politely challenged in students
  2. criticism is banished altogether, including so-called 'constructive criticism'
  3. positive reinforcement is not casual but a structured and carefully managed process - see three Ss article
  4. the circular arrows are intended to indicate that the engine runs on after the event - even those that don't attend are likely to benefit, as participants will probably show them greater respect, having intuitively realised the values and virtues of the process   


Team building and real community
One of the key features of the positive reinforcement process I use in my training is that the person being coached receives positive feedback from everyone in the group, as well as the tutor.  Students are guided to give feedback that is supportive, specific and also sincere.  I've noticed that many people who lack confidence in singing say, would rather believe that they are poor at it than hear about their strengths.  Having the whole group, individually give supportive, specific and sincere feedback helps to get around this.  This tide-wave of positive comments is hard to argue with and challenges their limiting beliefs. 


Almost immediately competition disappears and a more positive ambience takes over with everyone willing everyone else to achieve their best.  Students being coached feel properly listened to, they feel appreciated and they feel that they have been shown respect.  One emotionally robust young woman at the end of a singing course surprised me my saying: "I feel wonderfully cherished by the group".  Indeed it's often very surprising what people say in the closing review of my singing course.  Many break down into tears at this point.  Some are moved by the amount of progress they have made, beyond reasonable expectation.  Others realise that the community we have created and the positive ambience will soon be over.  Yet others grasp that there is a different way of living and commit to changes in their behaviour towards their loved ones and/or work colleagues.


One key feature of my process (to use a car metaphor) is that the engine ticks over long after the ignition key is removed.  Students intuitively realise the benefits of mutual respect in their ongoing dealings with people.  They sense the value that building the confidence of others brings to their relationships.  In a business context this is of significant worth.  Not only do the course participants acquire team skills but the people they interact with afterwards, when shown respect, will respond more positively.  So staff who don't attend benefit too and the culture of the whole organisation matures.

Clubs and societies bring people together with common interests and churches do likewise with common beliefs.  But within clubs and church communities there can be rifts, factions and struggles for leadership.  These negative aspects limit the potential of the community itself.  The community we experience on my courses, because of the engine, because of the lack of criticism and competition, because of mutual respect are not like that.  They are respectful, cherishing communities.  I call this 'real community'. 


I feel moved writing this essay.  It has brought back so many memories of being in real and cherishing communities, which I suspect many people have never experienced.  I also feel enormously proud to have facilitated them and privileged to have experienced them.  One student wrote: "It has been a very rare and special weekend. The structure and delivery of the course allowed such growth in the group: a spirit of warmth and fun which I have not experienced ever before. I will recommend the course to others and will cherish the memory I take with me."        

'Respect' is the key word here.  On my courses we don't just tolerate the differences between people, we celebrate them.  In this regard, I humbly suggest that my engine has broader ramifications than music and management training.  It genuinely is a template for a more harmonious society.

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