Going beyond ‘tolerance’

How to work with people you don't really like!

Volume 114, No. 6June, 2014

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R
Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

The office of the Musicians’ Assistance Program is your one-stop shop for musicians’ health. We offer counseling – both one-on-one and in groups – as well as information on all kinds of social services, including health insurance, housing, food stamps and more. All services are free to Local 802 members. Contact us at or (212) 397-4802.

As musicians, we often have to work in very diverse groups – often in close quarters. Getting along with others is crucial: it can be the difference between getting a gig or not and it often fuels the motor behind our careers. Conflicts and misunderstandings can take the music off track and even end up with someone getting fired. All of those individual quirks that make musicians great can also cause annoyances and even downright dysfunction in a group setting.

So what can we all do? Today I’m going to discuss some general tips on how to go beyond mere “tolerance” of others and work towards being able to smooth your relationships and networks so that the music can go on.

Do we even need to be in groups? Why not just work independently?

First let’s start with the obvious – musicians really need each other. Collaborations are part of the creative process, even if it’s just sharing your work for feedback. Many of us need to hire others or be hired. That depends on cultivating relationships. Whatever fantasies we have about working strictly alone have long ago been broken by economics, technology and culture. Keeping your finger on the pulse requires that you be in touch with others. Burning bridges can shorten the already short list of opportunities in the future.

Anyway, belonging to a group is part of the social need of human beings. It gives us a sense of identity and security in our intimate relationships. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, “belonging to a group” is right above food and shelter. That higher pursuit of art and beauty that artists strive to get a taste of? It rests on the shoulders of support from others. We can’t do it alone.

Why can’t we all get along?

Bigotry is out there. Racism, homophobia, misogyny, classism, ageism – you name it, many people in the world have prejudices based on life experience and darker forces that exist in the human psyche. Social psychologists have long studied prejudice and why it happens. Essentially our individual traits compel us to identify with a group most like us. This force acts as a mechanism to protect our identity. When we encounter an individual with different traits, we make a quick judgment. Most of the time we are driven to assign a “good” label to our own trait and “bad” to somebody different. Our need to belong to our own group and our own identity is reinforced.

However, we cannot choose whom we work with and control who is in the world around us. Since musicians increasingly need each other and as the world grows smaller, our ability to work with diversity is going to be more and more essential. Much of our success will come down to effort and understanding.

How in the world do I work with someone who’s so different?

“Tolerance” is a word that is thrown around a lot when it comes to working with diversity. When you think about it, some amount of emotional tolerance is important in relationships in regard to working through conflict and differences. You can’t really hear what your colleague is saying in order to get the work done when you are immersed in deep rage or anxiety. Taking a few breaths and being able to recognize your own feelings are essential first steps in tolerating conflict in order to communicate.

However, depending on tolerance alone is a real problem because the basic premise is that you are merely putting up with someone different from you. You are not really looking at or embracing what the differences are and how they can be valid for someone else. When you’re only being tolerant it’s still easy to be judgmental. Being too judgmental acts as a kind of blind spot where you are now only learning what you want to learn and overlooking how being or thinking different doesn’t have to be the same as wrong.

When you allow yourself to go beyond tolerance and work towards trying to understand someone else’s experience, you’re able to grasp that incredibly important task of empathy – being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When one feels empathy from another, everyone feels less alone and more cohesive. This, in effect, is the agent of change that allows differences to come together and move forward. Everyone learns and therefore everyone wins.

O.K., that’s all so much easier said than done. What if the damage is already there?

Most of us were taught as kids that apologizing is the socially correct way to react to get forgiveness and resolve conflict. Sometimes, though, an apology can be experienced as an empty way to close the dialogue or as an insincere gesture. Why is that? Well, yes…sometimes we may not be sincere when we apologize. But it’s worth the work to think through what you are really trying to do, to make the apology more effective. Even if we may have some residual bad feelings, taking responsibility for our own actions is the most commonly missed opportunity in apologizing. You might surprise yourself in how it allows you to let go. Two important questions:

  1. Why are you apologizing? How did it hurt the other person? “I’m sorry because I hurt your feelings and that was wrong.”
  2. What are you going to try to do differently in the future? How are you going to change? “In the future, I’ll work on keeping mean thoughts to myself.”

It’s amazingly powerful to apologize with intent. Try it sometime. The next conflict you have with a co-worker or even a loved one, don’t just apologize but tell them the why and how. I guarantee you’ll get a more effective resolution. Even better, if you are the one who is receiving the apology, remember to go beyond tolerance.