As a kid, I could always be found singing, dancing or just being silly. The silliness blossomed into a love of acting and, in particular, making people laugh. I attended a wonderful performing arts high school where I was fortunate enough to study all aspects of theater under the tutelage of some amazing teachers. One stand-out class for me was improvisational theater, or improv.
Our teacher was wacky, cool and downright hysterical, and I loved the freedom we had to explore and open up. We quickly learned, however, that improv wasn’t just about being random and silly, it was a serious craft worthy of respect and that came with its own set of principles. By following these guidelines, the actors hold themselves and each other accountable for the scene. In fact, having a set of guiding principles was the best way give yourself up to the moment.
Fast forward to my professional life, and these same convictions are just as valuable and applicable as they were in my theater days. While these are by no means the full extent of improv’s guiding truths, they are the ones that have resonated the loudest with me beyond the theater (and are arguably the most important within it).
It sounds easy enough, but in theater and in business, many of us find ourselves thinking ahead to what we are going to say next rather than actively listening to the scene or discussion. We get so caught up in trying to rush through meetings that we forget to engage and listen to what our team member/partner/client has to say.
This becomes even more necessary in today’s digital age, where we multi-task to a fault. I’ve attended countless meetings where people have had to repeat themselves multiple times because someone was on their phone or tablet and wasn’t actively listening. I’ve been guilty of it too—we all have.
contribute (Yes, AND…)
Active listening is important, and an important requirement for adding new information or perspective to the discussion. In improv, if someone says “I’m a baby” and you say “No, you’re not,” the scene dies right there. Similarly, if someone says “I’m a baby” and you say “Yes, you are,” but add nothing new to the dialogue, you’re putting a lot of pressure on your partner to carry the scene. However, if someone says “I’m a baby,” and you reply “Yes, you are my sweet baby, and I’m so lucky to have you. Let’s go to the park and have a picnic.” We now have collaboration, and the scene can flourish.
In business, this principle can be applied in much the same way. When someone presents a new idea, find a way to say “yes, and”. It’s easy to say “no,” and offer very little engagement and commitment. It’s a lot harder but infinitely more valuable to say “yes” and contribute something that helps move the conversation forward.
make your partners look good
In business, it’s easy to get caught up in titles and roles. Who’s on the call? How can I make myself look good? Am I able to speak freely?
A better use of energy is making your team or clients look good instead. You may have heard the phrase, “Make your partner look good and you will look twice as good.” In improv, this means doing what is necessary to make the scene work. In business, it may mean swallowing your pride and getting behind your client’s idea. Build on what others are saying by contributing to the “Yes, and” mentality. Use the collective wisdom and energy of the group to collaborate and your problems will be solved much quicker. Another familiar phrase—The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course, this doesn’t mean blindly following other people’s ideas or getting behind positions that truly don’t make sense. I’m simply advocating to be flexible to approaches that make everyone feel heard.
let go of your agenda
Making your team look good often means dropping your own agenda, and real problem solving may involve relinquishing your original plan. Sometimes we are so focused on the end result that we forget about the importance of the discussion itself. Letting go of your agenda means putting the scene (or meeting or company) ahead of your own needs. Instead of squashing organic conversations, see where they go—an impromptu discussion is often the best way for everyone’s voice to be heard. Open dialogue can also reduce ongoing, post-meeting emails. On stage or in the boardroom, being productive means being flexible, present and engaged.
In Improv, you’re taught from the beginning that there are no mistakes … or at least, if you make one, you just keep going. You have to keep the scene moving and the energy flowing, so there is no time to sit and analyze what happened.
In business, we know that mistakes do happen, but rather than dwelling on the mistake (what happened and who’s to blame) we should instead accept them and focus on moving the conversation forward. While it’s important to learn from what happened, it’s equally important not to dwell.
Needless to say, I did not become a professional actor—although I have found life to require plenty of improvisation! While these five principles may not apply to every situation, at the end of the day, if we listen better, foster collaboration, empower the people around us, keep an open mind and embrace our mistakes, we will be a better partner—in theater, in business, and in life.