We’ve all been there before: you’re in a meeting when someone throws out a proposal or says something that you think is dumb. Cue the eye rolling. Get back to the phone and the laptop. Tune out.
Communication is the public theater of improvisation. In the face of an uncertain and unscripted future, improvisation is a mode of decision making that is instantaneous and taps into emotion as much as it does reason. The art of improvisation is to create a spontaneously evolving story. We may think we know how something will turn out, but then life throws us a curveball.
Both the communications professional and the improvisational actor deal in the moment, shaping events, eliciting particular reactions, changing minds, making decisions, responding in crises. We are all trying to divine the right words to fit the emotional tenor of the moment. We should always be asking ”What if…?”.
The legendary actor Bill Murray once said, “Improvisation is the most important group work since they built the pyramids.” Which might be why most of the cast of Saturday Night Live comes up through the ranks of improv troupes such as Second City in Chicago. Murray was referring to the solutions attained when people work together and support each other.
As a training tool for clients, we sometimes bring in a professional improvisation coach. My close friend, Alissa Ahlberg, who specializes in working with businesses, teaches us to look to the future and consider the ways we can shape it by creating scenarios that heretofore did not exist.
She explains how the principles that guide her interactions with others on stage also apply to business meetings and events. Alissa demonstrates that an important negotiation is a perfect example of an improvisational experience—it is a play of personalities, agendas, context, timing, outcomes, and the spirit of the moment.
One night around the dinner table before she was heading to Denver’s Next Improv Star contest, Alissa posed a question: How do we support someone we don’t agree with? Instead of the eye rolling, tuning out, and shooting down an idea, how else can we react?
What a profound question.
The very art of being an organizational leader or manager is to act in an unknown, undefined moment. Our audience may not be in theater seats, but they are employees, investors, regulators, policymakers, journalists, wags, neighbors, parents, and a cast of characters.
The answer for, “How do we support someone we don’t agree with?” Alissa answered simply: “We make it better.”
Improv works like this: Every time the improviser speaks or performs an action in a scene, it is an offer. The actor throws out something that defines some element of the reality of the scene. These offers could include a location, name, relationship, or a pantomime to define the physical environment.
These offers are known as endowment. It is the responsibility of the improviser to accept offers their fellow performers make. Refusing or failing to accept and doing something else is known as blocking, which is mostly frowned upon by other actors. (Just like in a meeting when someone blocks you.)
When an improviser accepts the offer, they usually accompany it by adding a new offer, skillfully building off earlier offers. This is the process that results in ”Yes, and…”, which is the cornerstone of improvisational technique—and also of good teamwork on any professional project. The exciting part about improv is combining the unknown with the known. “We don’t know what the story is going to be, but we know how to tell a story,” Alissa says.
Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. The ultimate lesson for an improvisational actor, or a manager, is that it isn’t about you. It’s about the other person on the stage. Put your attention on others and make them look good. In turn, you look good. Alissa said she should be able to go onstage with Amy Poehler (SNL, Parks and Recreation) or Tina Fey and make people clap for them. If someone throws them a bad idea, instead of shooting it down, they will make it the funniest thing you’ve ever heard.
If someone gives you a bad idea, then it’s up to you to make it brilliant. You have to leave your own ego at the door.
Alissa points out the difference between listening to understand versus listening to respond, and notes that it’s not easy to forego your own agenda in order to be in the moment and allow conversation to happen organically, even if you know it’s for the greater good. Too often instead of listening to comprehend the idea, we are listening to formulate our opinion and response. There is a big difference.
One of the most important lessons that improv can teach us as professionals—and simply as people—is that when you listen to truly understand, you open yourself up for collaboration and pass on the greatest gift: Real Human Connection.
Next time you are in a meeting, negotiation, or decision-making situation, or even on a date or out with friends, think about how you can bring value. Instead of shooting things down you don’t agree with, make them better.short url: