How to have conversations like a jazz musician


Winton Marsalis has said that the best listener in an improvisational jazz session often ends up contributing the most to the music because they are able to play off whatever is being offered by the other musicians.

And so it could be with the conversations you have within your organization. How often have you been in a meeting where everyone is vying for attention and waiting for their turn to speak? The dialog is disjointed, with disparate pieces of information coming in from all sides. If you’re leading the meeting, you have to work doubly hard to make meaning of the cacophony. The music of the conversation is discordant, without common threads.

If a jazz musician is focused on what they’ll play next rather than listening to what is going on in the ensemble, they’d miss out on contributing in a meaningful way. Likewise if we focus in a conversation on what you are going to say next, we don’t have the important information necessary to contribute to the meaning that is emerging.

Like many leaders, you may have concerns about the absence of creativity and insight in your organization. If you and your team were practicing listening like a jazz musician, creativity could flow through the “listening conversations” you have.

Listening like a jazz musician

I was recently reminded of the power of listening conversations when hosting a World Café in my community. To be honest, it’s a very difficult yet essential thing to do when you are the host (leader). Yet, as I listened deeply to the thoughts, opinions, and stories that emerged in the conversation I could see how each contributor played off the others in the room. Not only was I listening like a jazz musician, but the others in the room were too. Participants approached me later to tell me how unusual this kind of conversation is.

The guidelines for a World Café conversation can be adapted and made explicit by you for all team members during those times when you need to have conversations that include deep listening. It is particularly important for you, as the leader, to demonstrate them and discuss them with your team:

Speak with your mind and your heart.

Focus on what matters.

Listen to understand together for patterns, insights, and deeper connections.

Link and connect ideas.

Slow down so you have time to reflect.

None of this is easy in our discordant organizations. Some of the assumptions behind the conversations that happen in a World Café conversation may be helpful for you to embrace as you facilitate these kinds of conversations:

Collective knowledge and wisdom needed are present and accessible in others.

Intelligence emerges as positive connections are made in the conversation.

These deep listening conversations can uncover a great deal of the intelligence, wisdom, and creativity that you’ve been craving for your organization. They can- and should – be a part of any conversation that requires new insight. Can you see where you might be able to have the kind of conversations that jazz musicians have?


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.