In performing, and just in life, it’s very easy to get hypnotized into wondering what people are thinking about you. In any kind of endeavor where your output is judged, and especially in performing where it’s judged the moment it’s created, the question of “Do they like it” is usually first and foremost on the creator’s mind. This constant obsession with the very viability of one’s output, even one’s identity, can drive a person insane, and has done so on many occasions.
I’ve struggled with this since I was young enough to start thinking about it. Over time I’ve made great strides towards being able to create, perform and interact in spite of my misgivings. As the years have gone by, I’ve developed a strategy that has made it possible for me to work without giving up my desire to please my audience.
I attend to whether people like what I’m doing. I don’t worry about it. There’s a huge difference between the two.
As performers, teachers, creators, I usually have a certain response in mind from my audience. It is very tempting to try to manipulate them into giving me the response I want. I can manifest my power, strong arm them with tried and true tricks of the trade, to ensure that they laugh, cry, learn.
I don’t believe this approach usually works for me. If it ever does, it’s a coincidence: what I want happens to coincide with what they want, and my manipulations are merely redundant. The only real result of my manipulation is that I come away with a false sense of my power.
What does work is to attend to whether something that I’m doing is effective. I watch the audience, I listen to their response, and I gauge it against what I’m doing. If I’m not getting the response I want, I make adjustments to what I’m doing and I check again.
If I worry about my audience, then I am focused on them, and I am forced to do what I can to manipulate them into giving me the response I want. If I attend to my audience, then I am merely including them in my overall picture of what’s happening between us. The focus isn’t on their reaction, but on our relationship.
When I manipulate, I see my audience as a light switch. They are either on or off, and it’s my job to turn them. Their failure to “light up” is my failure as a creator.
When I attend, I see my audience as the other half of a conversation. There’s an enormous spectrum of possibilities between us, and I can adjust my half the way I constantly adjust my weight when I’m balancing on a narrow beam. Their failure to respond may mean that I haven’t found the right thing, or it may mean that no relationship is possible no matter what I do.
So if I’m playing a gig, and the audience is talking, I ask myself what it is that they want. I adjust my groove and I watch them to see if I am reaching them. I change my volume level to see if I can get into their ears.
If I’m writing a book and no one reads it, I ask myself what I can change to invite them in, from the title to the font. If they attempt to read it but don’t finish, I want to know where they stopped so that I can examine what I’m doing at that spot that could be better. If they read it but don’t respond, I think about whether I’ve communicated as effectively or as efficiently as I needed to.
I encourage you to take the same approach, whether you are a painter, a businessperson, or even someone in a relationship. We can’t really control someone else, and to the extent we can manipulate them, we only make a true relationship impossible. We can listen, however, and in listening we can extend that attention to them, to ourselves, and the delicate balance between.
Does this ring true for you? Have you experienced the difference? Your response will tell me what I should write about next!