Full disclosure, I struggle sometimes with the one element of my work that I love the most: teaching improvisation to scientists, engineers and business leaders.
The invite goes like this: “Come to my class on improvisation. Have some fun! Learn communication tools! Be better at communicating with others!”
The invite is followed by a look of horror on the person’s face.
As Alan Alda of the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University says, “We are not trying to turn people into comedians, but we are trying to teach them how to connect.”
And that is the key.
Prior to the pandemic, I did a one-hour session with a group of Pfizer project managers. They, like many others, weren’t sure what they were getting themselves into. They left saying: “In one hour I learned communication tools which I could take back to my team and apply the next day.”
But here is the thing. I have been conducting some form of adult learning for more years, (Ehm...) than I care to mention. I have designed in-person and online training for three Fortune 500 companies, graduate students at a major university as well as for Fortune 50 companies for my personal clients. The tool of improvisation cuts to the core and trains people how to focus, listen, think on their feet, and respond, quicker THAN ANY OTHER TOOL, I HAVE EVER SEEN!
And that is NOT an overstatement. And while anyone will learn from one session, it is truly a case of, "if one is good, more is better." The more you practice improvisation techniques, the better you are at focusing, listening, and responding. Moreover, leaders who spent time in their MBA programs or those in technology who embrace the concept of Agile, learn the the value of being flexible, nimble, of “going with the flow.” Or, improvisation by another name.
This doesn’t even begin to discuss all that is possible when we repeat the skill of inclusivity and the and learning how to build others up instead of tearing them down.
Recently, I facilitated a workshop with 55 tech leaders. I asked one of them to work with me and I said to him: “It was odd, I walked outside yesterday and the sky was green!” He replied, very dubiously: “Really?”
The entire room erupted in laughter because they understood the missed opportunity.
In applied improvisation – the tool we use in businesses – this is called “making an offer” and having the offer denied. Another way to say it within the language of improvisation, is “making an offer and the other person answers with ‘no because’ instead of, ‘yes, and.’
When the participant said “Really?” The conversation had no where to go. He denied my offer.
So let’s translate this into everyday terms. How many times have you been sitting in a meeting; you offer an idea, and someone says the equivalent of a doubtful “really?”
How did that make you feel?
Or how many times have you done that to other people? What would have happened if you’d said, “That’s interesting tell me more…”
While your idea, or the one offered to you may not turn into the the thing that revolutionizes your software or your business, you have downgraded your ability to build on the relationship with the person who made the offer. And that is important if you are their leader.
Now, don’t feel bad – we have all done this at one time or another. But while the skills that improvisation teaches may not turn you into a performer, taking a class or hiring someone to coach your team will provide a LOT OF FUN while your communication skills increase.
So, if you can’t see the benefit to your business of better focus, better listening and more relationship building, what would be possible if you just got out of your comfort zone enough so that the next time you are invited to an improvisation session – whether online or in person - you say, "Yes” and go have fun!
After all, there is nothing wrong with fun, is there?
Skills that improvisation training can help teams with:
Making other team members look good.
Understanding the value of mistakes