“Stress is the absence of presence.” -me, ann.
My doorbell just rang. Literally, about twenty minutes ago. I was watching the U.S. Open tennis on replay. Here's how years of improv practice has changed me:
My innate response, when I heard the doorbell, was curiosity. In the past, my default mode, when encountering the unexpected, was definitely a contraction.
Anyway, back to the door. It was Jane, a wonderful woman from our drop-in local improv class. In each of her hands was a basket of garden-fresh tomatoes. YUM.
Curiosity tastes way better than contraction. Being open rocks.
PS: Being open doesn't necessarily mean open the door. Being open simply means that you're tuned in. Your instincts and awareness are operating. For example, if you sensed your own true need for solitude, or if you got the hit that it wasn't safe, then saying YES to that data means the door stays shut. Your choice. Being open gives you data, and an awareness of that data gives you choice.
Okay, that's today's bounty report. I've got a garden-fresh tomato to eat. YUM.
Have you seen the film, "A Fish Called Wanda"? There's a scene in it that's become legend in our family, referenced as a reminder of improv's "Say Yes" skill. Kline plays a burglar who opens a long longed-for safe only to find...it's empty! He dances hysterically and shouts emphatically, "Disappointed!" It's such a great YES to what is.
Different family members and I have referenced it often over the years when in need of breath-giving humor to moments of light disappointment. Like I wanted an ice cream cone the other night and Baskin and Robbins was literally…out of ice cream! Only four flavors were left after a heat-wave run here in Sonoma. “Disappointed!"
Okay, so, check out that scene. It's such a fun reminder that saying YES often *simply* means allowing the truth of what you're feeling. From there you can proceed to “And"...maybe I’ll get a cookie…or an apple…or…
In improv, we use this thing called “status.” In the business world, status usually equates to your position in a company. In improv, your status changes moment by moment. It depends on how open, confident, vulnerable, and benevolent you’re being in relationship to your partner(s).
In high status moments, people are open, confident, receptive, and breathing easily. Low status moments are when people are defensive, insecure, deferring, and feeling powerless.
Obviously there’s a spectrum between high and low status that we can embody, and as you can guess, where you are on the spectrum can change in a heartbeat.
One interesting aspect of status is that we embody it, and also we assign it to others.
A number of years ago I was working with a group of about 10 C-level executives on leadership skills. It was an Applied Improv based workshop, so we’d been playing with the applications of “Yes, and….” body language, spontaneity/openness and so on.
Then we got to Status. They were doing an exercise where each person puts a playing card on their forehead. You can’t see your own card (and don’t know what it is), but you can see others’ cards. You treat each person according to the status level of their card. Aces high, 2’s low.
I gave them a scenario, and let them interact for about 5 minutes.
We were debriefing the experience. How it felt to be treated a certain way. What body choices they made to interact with the different status interactions. How the different status relationships felt.
Then one of the participants said “as I look around the room, I realize that I unconsciously assign a status number to everyone in this room, and they’re not all Aces…”
There followed a great discussion about respect, value, status, and how to make more conscious choices.
They decided to bring a deck of cards to their meetings, and put an Ace front and center to remind them to see everyone with an Ace planted squarely on their forehead.
I’ve learned that I can never predict what someone may take away from an applied improv session.
There’s an improv warm up exercise I learned a few years back called Yellow Ball.
Here’s how it works: The group stands in a circle. We begin to throw an imaginary yellow ball around the circle. When you throw the ball, you make eye contact, throw the imaginary ball, and say “yellow ball.” The person you’re throwing to, let’s you know they’ve “caught” the ball by saying “yellow ball. Thank you.”Then they throw the ball to someone else. And so it goes.
When the group gets this down, I’ll introduce more different colored balls into the game. It becomes an exercise in focus, maintaining relationship with the chaos of 6 balls being passed around, and making sure you’ve been heard/received, and more.
This is probably a 10 minute exercise in what’s likely a 2.5 hour applied improv session. I can’t tell you how many teams have adopted some version of Yellow Ball into their culture.
Some teams began putting “Yellow Ball” in the subject lines of emails that they wanted confirmation of receipt. Some teams would just call out “Yellow Ball!” If a meeting was getting too unfocused to bring back that level of attention.
There were other variations on those, but they all use the hook “Yellow ball!” to call in a deeper level of attention, relationship, and breath.
Cool stuff in there. And seeing as it’s improv, it’s also fun to play.
“Yellow Ball, thank you!”
Okay, so, who besides me sometimes tries to get someone else to do something your way? Like a small thing. PS: When your objective is to “control” someone, there are no small things. LIke, say, where to eat dinner. You want Chinese take-out, your partner wants to go to a Mexican restaurant. So it’s…time for an Improv Super Power #2:
God how I love being aware of my objective. In improv, on stage, it’s called Serve the Scene (rather than your exhaustive ego.) As soon as I notice that I’m getting tense in my “need” for Chinese take-out (e.g. my voice louder, no fun in my body) I can go, “Ah HA! Time to check my objective!”
And then, voila: My (tension-making, unconscious) objective was to “get my way.” Oh, THAT again! Then I can reset with an objective that matters WAY MORE to me: Being able to breathe pleasurably in my body. I love that objective!
And god how the fallout is glorious: I can listen, and care about what the other person wants, in addition to what I want. And then, who knows, with all that spacious conscious respect in the room, often a third idea pops in. Like we call out the power struggle and enjoy going to see what’s easy to fix that we have in the frig. Yes!-Ann
God how I love this core skill of improv. Practicing “Yes” has made me a WAY happier camper. “Yes” means receiving what arrives. That’s all. That’s everything. I used to rail against reality all the time (“Why is that car ahead of us so stinky??”)
These days, after life’s continual “opportunities”, I generally accept the facts pretty quickly, even difficult ones. From there, from “Yes”, I can move to the resourcefulness of an “And” (e.g. pull over to create distance from the stinky car.)
AND, in case you’re wondering, saying “Yes” to accepting what arrives also means noticing and accepting what you're feeling, especially when it's a form of tension. Irritated, confused, scared. Then, with that awareness, you have access to a breathing, creative "And" (e.g. asking for help, or clarification, or taking a break.)
Okay! This entry leads naturally to the next one:
Improv Super Power for Life #2: Are You Choosing Your Objective?
See you next time! -Ann
I was at a birthday party for a friend yesterday. Out of the 25 or so guests, only 2 of us were improvisers. We decided (in the moment) to improvise a birthday song. There was already a guitar there, after all.
So we got a suggestion of a country where they don’t speak English (Thailand), and I improvised a song in Faux Thai, and the other improviser “translated” it into English. This is a very fun improv game.
When we finished, a small group gathered around us asking questions. The first question was of course, “did you rehearse that?”
“No. AND….” we went on the explain the improv skills/principles that help us create in the moment. Things like making your partner look brilliant. And staying open and present. Deferring judgment. Tenets of improv that I’ve talked about in past posts.
The conversation went on, and very happily was focused on the skills, and how to practice them, where they might be useful in life/work, and not so much on the “funny” aspect of improv.
Deep and fun, is this work that we do.
Deep and fun.
Okay, so it’s been awhile since we at LifePlays touched in via a blog post. Ann here.
People ask me how improv has changed my life. Or maybe I actually just go around telling people. Because it utterly, thankfully has. I use the skills and tenets of improv, mostly automatically now, throughout my day. That’s what I’ll be blogging about here. Examples. From mundane situations to crisis moments, I’ll share how improv can literally, happily save your lets-enjoy-ourselves-and-each-other life. You with me?
When you hear the word “improv,” what comes to mind? What words do you think of? Take a second. Think about it. “Improv.” Think of 4 things that come to mind.
If you’re like folks in my corporate workshops, you came up with things like comedy, Whose Line is it Anyway, spontaneous, thinking on your feet, quick, funny, and so on.
And yes, improv is all those things.
There’s a deeper skillset at play in the practice of improv. A skillset that allows you stay open, connected, trusting, present, flexible, resourceful, and fun to be with. All while creating and collaborating effortlessly with another person or people.
As improvisers, we practice specific improv exercises to get better at these ways of being in order to be collaborative and creative on stage.
As you look at those ways of being, imagine where and how they might be useful in your life or at work. Where might it be a benefit to be open, connected, trusting, present, flexible, and so on?
In essence, that’s what Applied Improv is. We coach people in the skills of improv, and then help them uncover where and how they can be applied at work to reach specific goals.
The fun challenge of being an Applied Improv facilitator, is in designing sessions that are not only fun and engaging, but reach specific goals. Improv is always fun. The challenge is to make it relevant and useful.
Say a client is looking to help their team be more open and collaborative during meetings (a challenge we often hear.)
We’ll start by coming up with specific improv activities that practice creating as equals, taking risks, and the showing benefits of building on other’s ideas. The key is to find improv exercises that practice the skills that support the client’s goals.
Each of the improv exercises is followed by a focused debrief that highlights the skills just practiced, and what new behaviors foster that particular skill.
At some point about half way through the session, we segue into “where might this new skill support your team?”
We’ll then set up scenarios so participants can practice these new skills/ways of being in a real-life situation. For example, they’ll have a mock product development meeting using the new skills. This is the “applied” part of the Applied Improv session. Without this practice, it’ll be a really fun, bonding time, but the chances of lasting change are diminished.
That’s it. Applied Improv in a nutshell.
Tons of fun with lasting change
You’re always practicing something. Always. And the more you practice something, the more deeply it becomes ingrained in who you are. And the better you get at it.
For example, right now, you’re practicing reading. That’s the obvious part. It gets interesting when we dig a bit deeper.
Right now, what are you practicing besides reading? Some hints: are you also practicing critical thinking? Or are you practicing being open and receptive? Or making connections to things you’ve thought of or read about before?
So take a second….. What are you practicing? Right now?
Did you get an answer? No answer is better or worse than any other. The question to ask is, “is what I’m practicing serving me?”
Is it? Are you practicing things that help you become who you want to be? Are you practicing skills that will serve you, and be of service to others?
Sometimes you may want to eliminate a habit, but more often than not, it’s more about wanting to add more choices in certain situations.
I mentioned critical thinking. That’s a highly rewarded and valued skill in today’s workplace. It’s a great skill to have. No doubt. And… sometimes it might be useful to be able to turn it off and exercise a different choice. Like in a brainstorm session. Or when I colleague brings you (quite vulnerably) the seed of an idea. But if you’ve been practicing critical thinking 24/7 for X years, it might be a challenge to do something different.
Unless, of course, you’ve practiced something different.
And this is why I love improv, and specifically Applied Improv.
Improv is a great way to practice certain skills that may be dormant, in a fun, connective way.
Some of the skills that improv practices are:
~Defer judgment (know you can evaluate later, just not now)
~Listen in order to receive (look for where you can connect)
~Build on what you receive (build up, don’t shoot down)
~Make your partner shine (see and build up others)
~Keep your body open (your body language affects how creative and open you are)
As you look at that list, some of those improv skills might not be what you go to as a default. Which is great! These are not the “right” way and they're absolutely not always called fror. AND… there are times when they can create flow, lead to more innovative solutions, and build trust and cohesion within a team.
Take a moment and imagine in your work, or in your life, where these skills might be of service.
What would it look like? How might things unfold differently? How would it feel to be that version of yourself?
The great thing is, if you want to get better at these skills, practicing them is really really fun! In our Applied Improv workshops, we’ll lead you through a series of very fun improv activities that are followed by short, focused debriefs. Through the debriefs, you’ll identify the skills practiced, and then key areas where they are relevant, useful, and how they can be used.
Way, WAY more fun than PowerPoint!
And it works! And sticks!!!
Before studying improv and becoming an improviser and an applied improv trainer, I was a classically trained musician. That’s where I learned the power of practice. Practice doesn’t make “perfect,” as the saying goes, practice makes “permanent.”
I remember I had learned a saraband by Bach. When I first read through the saraband, I learned a wrong note. I practiced it with the wrong note for about a week. Then, at my lesson, my teacher at the conservatory corrected me.
Great. So I started practicing the piece with the correct note. No big deal.
A couple of months later, I gave my first recital at the conservatory and played the saraband. When I came to The Note, my hands reverted and I played the wrong note. I had spent months practicing it correctly, but with the added pressure of a recital and an audience, I unconsciously reverted to what I had first learned.
That was very interesting to me. “I unconsciously reverted to what I had first learned.”
25 years later, as I was beginning to facilitate corporate improv sessions around leadership and fostering innovation, I remembered that moment.
Under pressure, we revert to old habits and learned behaviors.
In my workshops participants had learned and practiced new ways of listening, responding, and collaborating, but how do I help them actually use them when under pressure?
I had been shown that I’d learned a wrong note. I knew it. I had even practiced it correctly, but I hadn’t really given it much attention.
After I played the “wrong note” in recital, I gave that passage focused practice. A lot. The next time I played it in recital it went fine.
Now, in my corporate improv sessions, I have participants come up with a practice to keep the improv skills alive, present, and ready to use
Often, they come up with a way to begin their meetings that reinforces the improv skills. Sometimes it’s an improv activity. Sometimes it’s just a word. I help them come up with what will work for them, and be fun, easy, and lasting.
Focused practice for new ways of being, because practice makes permanent.
We do a lot of “culture growing” with our clients. Usually it’s growing a culture of collaboration, or creativity, or support.
We were recently engaged by a client who wanted to grow a culture of easily giving and receiving feedback. More specifically, horizontally to peers within teams, not to reports down the food-chain.
It was an interesting challenge. Can improv be a learning tool for giving and receiving feedback?
There were some obvious bridges: You need trust to give/receive feedback; improv grows trust. There’s an openness needed to give or receive feedback from a peer; improv practices being open and receptive. Improv practices accepting whatever comes your way and working with it (Yes, and...), so it might be a good tool in overcoming initial knee-jerk resistance to receiving feedback.
I guided the participants through a carefully tailored series of applied improv exercises. After each one we talked about how the skills embedded in the exercises could support giving and receiving feedback."
But y’know, to ride a bike, you gotta get on a bike.
So we jumped into some scaffolded exercises where they were actually asking for, and receiving feedback. It was easy.
What the improv had done was create trust and openness, and subliminally planted the seeds of seeing everything as an “offer” to be accepted and used. When you can break down barriers, build bridges, and create a shared vision, things get really easy.
AND… it’s good to remember that if you want to learn to ride a bike, you literally have to get on a bike. Not just talk about it.
Most of our improv for business workshops have something to do with collaboration. At its core, improv is a communication skillset that teaches and practices collaboration. The core skill of improv is “Yes, And….” You may have heard of that. It’s not quite in the drinking water, but it’s getting more common. In a nutshell, the “Yes” is accepting whatever your partner says or does. The “And” is building on that. When both people are doing this, it’s deeply generative and collaborative. In doing actual improv, where there are no limitations or repercussions, it’s easy to “Yes, And”. You can say Yes to anything, it’s play.
And then there’s Life. Or Work. With real people. Where outcomes matter. Where you have opinions.
Flashback a few years: I’m teaching in the MBA program at USF, I’m on the phone with the two other professors co-teaching the class with me. We’re mid-stream, designing an improv exercise for the students to practice a concept around consulting. I’m not being a great collaborator. I’m pushing back, saying lots of “no’s” and generally driving my idea. After about three minutes of head-butting, one of the other professors says something like, “You really want this exercise to go well, don’t you?”
I stop in my bulldog tracks. My whole body relaxes and I feel my breath return. I even laugh. The transformation was instant.
He had found the “Yes.”
That’s the trick. With applied improv, we practice literally saying “Yes” to all offers. In life and business, often the “Yes” is simply seeing your partner. We went on to collaboratively design a solid new applied improv exercise for the students.
So find the “Yes.” It can work wonders. Take it from me, an occasional bulldog.
What do customers want from you? When they have a complaint? When they’re happy? When they’re just “being?”
We were recently engaged to do a rather extensive customer service initiative. The client contacted us because they were specifically interested in using improv to enhance their customer service.
Interestingly, I had a very odd customer service experience when I checked into a hotel near where I would be delivering the workshops.
I checked in, went up to my room, and realized that it was super noisy. I could hear every footstep and every word from the room above me.
I was about to deliver 4 days of workshops, and I really wanted a quiet room.
I went back to the desk clerk and explained what was going on. He disappeared into the back room for a minute, and then came out with a new room key for a top floor room.
I was unbelievably relieved! I thanked him profusely and told him how much this meant to me.
As I began to thank him, he started talking over me, waving his hand, and saying “Hey, no big deal. Not a problem. No problem. Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing,” and so on.
As I went upstairs to my new room, I realized what an odd experience I’d just had. On the one hand, my problem had been perfectly solved. I now had a quiet room. But something felt off.
I had not been “seen” by this clerk. It seemed in retrospect, judging from my feeling about the interaction, I had wanted him to see and acknowledge my gratitude and relief. As bizarre as it sounds, he had in essence solved my problem and blown me off!
Back in my (quiet) room, I began to revise my upcoming workshops.
At its core, improv is a communication skill set about co-creating as equals. There are many layers, of course, but that’s the essence.
My workshops revolved around using improv to practice connecting and seeing the other person, looking for the “yes” (see prior blogs), and then from that “yes” place, solving the problem.
What I added was to find the “yes” (place of connection) even when there’s no problem.
All we really want is to be seen. (and a quiet room…..)
For a number of years now I’ve been involved with The Big Ideas Fest—a yearly conference devoted to innovating education. The framework for the 4-day conference is a Design Thinking model that produces highly innovative solutions to large intractable problems within education. My part, is to design improv exercises that support the participants in being highly collaborative. That IS the essence of improv….
KQED, which is one of the sponsors of the conference, just posted a great article on improv in the classroom in their Mind/Shift blog. A good read. Also notice the graphics lifted from The Big Ideas Fest.
If you’ve been exposed to improv, you’ve probably heard of, or experienced this thing called “Yes, and….” It’s the core skill of improv.
Here’s the smallest of nutshells if this is new to you: As improvisers, our task is to create with our partner(s) seamlessly and fluidly in the moment. We do this by accepting everything our partner says or does in the scene we’re creating. The “yes” is accepting what they give us. The “and” is building on it and moving the scene forward. This is an amazing tool to create in-the-moment. Everyone feels equal, supported, and great things get created.
So how does this skill/practice live in the “real world?” How can you “yes, and…” someone when you know that the answer is “no?”
Step one is that you have to want to. You can’t be looking for a “technique” to placate them, or to let them down easily. You have to want to hear them, to understand them, to work with them. You’re looking for a win/win.
I remember a few years ago we were painting our living room. I had found an amazing faux-finish idea that I wanted to use. This deep, rich, textured red. It was incredible. Best idea ever! And my wife had found this sort of Tuscan yellow. We each said our idea. And we began to lobby for our own ideas. Then we stopped and took a collective breath.
“You like the yellow,” I said, taking in her choice.
“Hmmm…. You like the faux-finish red,” she said, taking in my idea.
And we sat there. We sat in our difference, taking it all in.
That was the “yes”. Acknowledging our partner’s choice/desire. In life, the “yes” is often acknowledging someone’s experience, emotion, or desire. You’re not literally saying “yes” to it, but you’re acknowledging it. I didn’t say “Yes, let’s use your color,” because that wasn’t true for me. But I did say “yes, that’s what you want. I can see your desire.”
So we sat there looking at our 2 choices. Still not lobbying for our own, just staying open and feeling our partner’s desire. As we looked at the 2 colors, it began to occur to us that they went really well together. They complimented each other really nicely.
End of story? 2 walls were Tuscan Yellow, 2 walls were faux-finish red. It looked great! WAY better than either one would have looked. THAT was the “yes, and….” that we found by staying open and starting with the “yes”.
Always look for the “yes.” There’s always something you can “yes.” The “and” might be tougher, but if you start with a “yes” everything will be smoother, and you just might find that creative solution that no one thought of.
I strongly subscribe to the idea that not only does your body language effect how others perceive you, but more importantly, your body language effects who you are in that moment. Chemically, emotionally, and so on. (If you don’t know the work of Amy Cuddy, watch her TED Talk.)
I want to give you a super-simple Applied Improv exercise to play with this idea, and see how it lands for you. I’ll take a very basic improv exercise called word-at-a-time-story, and then build on it to play with this idea that how you hold your body changes who you are.
Here’s the first step: Find someone to play with. Together you tell a story, alternating back and forth, each of you only gets one word at a time.
Get a running start with “Once – there – was – a - _______ etc.” Make sense? You tell the story one word at a time. Have fun. Don’t worry about telling a “good” story. This is more about process.
Do this a few times.
Now, stand opposite your partner, cross your arms on your chest. Lock your knees. Weight back on your heels. Focus on their top button instead of making eye contact. Keep your jaw tight.
Do the exercise like this a couple of times.
Shake that one off. Now stand in front of your partner. Weight forward on your feet. Arms relaxed and open. Jaw relaxed. Easy eye contact.
Now do the exercise a few times this way.
Try the other way again.
How did the two ways feel different?
How did you perceive your partner?
How did you perceive yourself?
How was your attitude different each way?
How easy or difficult was the “task” the two different ways?
When did you feel more engaged?
Assuming you noticed a difference, all you had to do to create that difference was change how you held your body. In this world of things that aren’t in your control, the way you hold your body is in your control.
How might this be useful? Where might it be useful? What would you like to try?
OK, I’m not a real “sports –guy” by any stretch. But I know the big names and I love the NBA when it comes to the finals, so I know Kobe Bryant.And I am an improviser, and I work with Applied Improv, and I see through those eyes.
So it caught my eye when I read that Kobe Bryant had just broken the record for the most 3-point misses in regular NBA season. That’s a lot of misses. A lot of “failures.” Here’s what Kobe said about it:
"You've got to step up and play, man, you can't worry about criticism. You can't worry about failure. You really can't worry about that stuff. You've got to go out and figure that out and play and do the best you can, and whatever happens, happens. You can't be held captive by the fear of failure or the fear of what people may say."
In performing improv, there are no failures or mistakes. Everyone’s job is to make your choices look brilliant. And you, theirs.
Taken to the business world, these skills and trust are invaluable. There are countless quotes about embracing failure. The trick is to take inspiring quotes about failure, and actually live them. To really be willing to fail.
Like Kobe. Arguably one of the top players in the NBA. Failing right and left.
Maybe our new tag-line should be “Fail like Kobe.”
If you want to Fail Like Kobe (and rise to the top), you might just give Applied Improv a shot.
In the current business environment a whole new set of skills is rising to the top. Everyone knows this. Change is happening faster, growth is exponential, and so on. It’s not so much about what you know, but how you are. Can you collaborate? Can you work within a team.? Can you build a team? Can you inspire? Do you listen? Can you foster creativity? Can you deal with change?
Supposedly one time when Steve Jobs was asked his greatest accomplishment, he said that he had put together teams that could collaborate.
You may take issue with the nuts and bolts of my premise, but generally you know what I’m talking about. Right? Are we good? Same page? Common ground? Other metaphor of agreement?
From a Harvard Business Review article on skills needed to thrive in the C-Suite, here are some skills/traits listed:
~Non authoritative leadership
~Team and Relationship building
“…he/she cannot succeed as a brilliant one-person player.”
~The power of persuasion and excellent presentation skills
“…mental deftness and stylistic versatility.”
“…less to do with driving drastic firm-wide change than with being at ease with constant flux.”
These are not cognitive skills. These come from a way of being and are learned through practice.
Improv is showing up in more and more business schools here in the US and internationally. I teach improv in the Executive MBA program at University of San Francisco. It’s in Harvard, Duke, UCLA, Carnegie Mellon, MIT Sloan, Columbia, and so on.
The reason improv is showing up is that it addresses these new key skills.
Improv is a skill-set that makes it possible to create in-the-moment with other people. When done skillfully, the story, song, play, or skit unfolds so seamlessly that it seems rehearsed. How do we do this, and how is it relevant to the new business skills?
Here’s what we do on stage, and imagine this in a business context:
~We focus on making our partner look really competent.
~We listen for where we can agree and connect.
~We put our egos on the shelf and focus on the thing we’re creating.
~We’re able do defer judgment/evaluation in order to explore and follow ideas.
~We have absolute trust that our fellow players have our backs. Because they do.
Right now, there are a ton of newly minted MBA’s who have had this training. A huge percentage of them found great value, and are leading in this way—with these skills and values.
As they rise up the ranks, they’ll be looking to hire people with these skills. And “Improv Training” on your resume might just be the way in the door.