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How improv can make you a better communicator

I discovered improvisation in 1997 when I took my first class in Theatresports. I was hooked on the instant freedom and acceptance I found. Nobody told me I was wrong. Nobody judged me for my actions or words. Whenever I was in an improvisational space, I felt more connected, relaxed and safe.  

Improv is tried and tested. It’s been used on the stage for 80 years and in the business world for the past three decades. Many people struggle to see the connection between the improv skits they see comedians and actors use and the practical skills that improvisation can teach you. 

After I needed to make a pandemic pivot from my career in delivering corporate massage, improv was the natural choice. Improv is purely about people. And helping people to get on better with each other. It’s also blind to sectors and hierarchies. If you’re in customer service or management or any role where you’re dealing with people, improv can help. 

Eric Vigo MIML, Founder and CIO (Chief Improv Officer) of Rebootr

Offer and response

While he is probably more known for his role as (now ex) CEO of Twitter, Dick Costello was also an improv performer. He once said, “One of the things that you’re always trying to make sure you really pay attention to in Improv is being in the moment and listening.” Whether it’s in a comedic context or in the workplace, Costello was absolutely spot on. 

Every improv facilitator has their own unique approach. My personal approach to improv is that active listening leads to active acceptance. It only works when people are in the moment and sharing their truth. If you’re not in the moment, everything collapses… and your partners are left in the lurch. 

Whatever someone says to you in improvisation is an offer. In real life we can get caught up in blocking. We put up our defences and don’t listen to what someone is saying because we’re focused on what we’re going to say next. In improvisation, we turn that on its head by building on every offer rather than blocking it. 

One of the activities we do in improvisation is called “Yes, and”. How many times have you been in a meeting where someone has said, “yes, but…”? This is blocking and it instantly shifts the mood and limits collaboration and communication. It’s not always conscious or intentional but it has the same effect.  

The “Yes, and” activity helps to show people the power of mindset. For example, you tell your team that you’re planning a picnic. The first person says, “let’s organise a picnic for later today.” The next person repeats what the last person said and builds on it, “yes, let’s organise a picnic for later today and let’s bring some snacks.”  

Each person listens to what the last person said, accepts it and builds on it. By repeating what the person before has said, you show that you’re really listening to them. Whether it’s planning a picnic or developing a new product, the same principles apply. It’s even a strategy I use in my marriage. Even an argument is an offer for you to build on! 

The benefit of improv is that it’s absorbed instantly. You and your team can put it to use immediately. 

Accepting mistakes

When people are afraid of making mistakes it holds them back from making suggestions. They fear shame. Or losing their job. And this can hinder productivity and culture. 

The thing with improvisation? It’s built on accepting mistakes. 

In improv, if someone makes a mistake, it’s just another offer. People are in the moment and speaking their truth and there is this universal acceptance. People relax. They don’t have to pretend to be someone they’re not. Or pretend to know everything. Instead, they’re connecting and communicating instantly. 

Obviously some mistakes have greater consequences than others. But on the whole, mistakes are minor blips. Imagine an organisation where mistakes, for the most part, are accepted or even built on?  

Embracing change

Mistakes aren’t the only thing people fear. They also fear change. 

Every improv activity has a gem in it. Some help people move to a positive mindset. Others help people to have more ease with change and give them the freedom to adapt. 

One activity we use to help with this is called “One Word at a Time”. Together as a group, you build a story, one word at a time. As each person has their turn they say a single word that builds on the story.  

As the story builds, you might have a picture in your head of where it’s going. Or, importantly, where you would like to see it go. You add your word… and then the next person changes the direction altogether. For some people, this can be very challenging. People need to constantly adapt and adapt again to listen, accept and build on the offer. This shifts them into a mindset that is more ready and prepared to accept change.  

Improvisation mind space

Late John Clarkeson, CEO of Boston Consulting Group said, “The winning organisation of the future will look more like a collection of jazz ensembles. Leaders will be in the flow, not remote; they will not be able to rely on exclusive decision-making authority; they will use the conflict among diverse points of view to reach new insights.” 

It’s one thing to practise improv in a group setting with a facilitator to guide you. But how can you use it in a practical setting in the workplace? Say you have a challenging employee, or an issue to resolve with a client. 

As I’ve already said, even conflict is an offer. In a typical conflict, people will attempt to block and build up their defences. The thing to remember is that improvisation is a mind space. If you hold your space of active listening, acceptance and building on the offer, then the ball is in the other person’s court. 

The same thing can happen in teams. If some of the team members are in an improvisational mind space where people are accepted, it’s much harder to react and respond by building up defences.

The communication connection

With improv, simplicity has the greatest effect. Here are three simple, foundation activities that can be replicated anywhere. Before team meetings, before strategy sessions, before you go into a tender.  

  1. Last Word, First Word 
    You take the last word someone says in their sentence and use it as the first word in your sentence. This continues around the group as you create a story together. This helps to foster connection in the team. 
  2. Yes, and… 
    I explained how to play this game at the beginning of this article. What I didn’t say was that I usually start this game by playing “Yes, but”. It’s incredible how the mood shifts when you switch to the “Yes, and” part of the game.  
  3. Word Association 
    The first person in the group says a word. The next person has to say the first word that comes to their mind associated with the original one and so on. This activity is ideal for lifting people out of self-interest and into a team mindset.  

The old saying of practice makes perfect is also true for improvisation. The teams that I work with get a return on their investment when they practice and incorporate improv into their culture. Otherwise improv is just a nice activity to do as a team but ultimately it’s a wasted effort. Practice the skills you learn and that’s when you’ll start to see attitudes and behaviours change. 

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