What comes to mind when you hear the word improv? Most people picture a comedian on stage telling jokes off the top of her head. We love people like Tina Fey, Robin Williams, and Will Ferrell, because they are incredible improv performers. They worked and trained to get better at improv, and for decades we've tuned in on Saturday night to watch them Live from New York! But improv is growing up. Every year, thousands of people are attending workshops around the country to learn the principles of improv. Why? To be better at business.
Improv skills come in handy in the workplace. I'm not talking about being the office clown. I'm talking about developing skills that help you navigate everyday conversations with co-workers, customers, or subordinates. Improv principles can help you see conversations differently. Becoming a better improv performer may even help you handle conflict situations better.
In our Improv for Business Workshop, attendees will have a chance to apply these principles in a safe environment. Here are some of the improv principles we'll cover.
We all do it. We fail to listen. During a conversation, we are continuously thinking about what we're going to say next, rather than listening to what the other person is trying to tell us. We're forming our argument because we see conflict as a battle – it's us against them and we need to start forming our argument early to launch a counter-attack. This isn't really a conversation. It's a debate.
But improv forces you to listen to your partners. You have to listen carefully to what they are giving you so that you can build on it. If your partner is telling you that they need a chocolate pudding cup, it's no use giving them a pair of pants. Improv is about building what the other people in the room are giving you. To do that you have to listen.
The second rule is agree. This is difficult in conflict situations, but it's important. You have to start from a point of agreement on something, anything. Yes, there is a time and place for testing assumptions and playing the devil's advocate, but it's not here. When there's conflict, begin with from a point of agreement.
Agreement is an important rule in improv. Without it, every scene would break down. Tina Fey illustrates this in her book, Bossy Pants. She says, if I point finger at you and say, "Stick 'em up! I've got a gun!" and you say, "That's not a gun, that's your finger. You're pointing your finger at me." Then the scene is over. There's no where to go from here. Both of you have lost.
The same is true for moments of unanticipated conflict. If you can't find a way to begin from a point of agreement, then there's nothing to build on, and nobody wins. The rule of agreement in improv forces you to accept the situation as it is, and move forward with it. This is equally powerful in work-related conflict situations.
The third rule is build. If you've successfully followed the first two rules, the third rule is a natural next step. Players in an improv scene must constantly work to build on the situation they've been given.
Listening and agreeing will get you only so far in a conflict. In some cases it may get you far enough because listening was just what was needed. But if there are underlying problems causing the conflict, then you're going to have to begin building solutions together. And that will take you into another equally important application for improv in business: Using Improv to Have Better Meetings, Generate Ideas, and Get More Done (next post coming soon).
It's no guarantee, but mastering the rules of improv for business, will put you ahead of the game for mastering conflicts at work.