Dang! Now what? Things weren't supposed to go like that! Adopting an Improvisers Ethos
What improv can teach us about maintaining resilience and flexibility when important communication goes sideways.
This essay is the first in a series on what you can do when your communication goes sideway. For the month of March we’ll explore lessons from the world of improvisational theatre that can help you be more flexible and resilient when faced with unexpected twists and turns at work and in life.
You can find Part 2: Jump and Justify here.
Part 2: Learn and Let Go is here.
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“I was gracious, I was direct. Logic was on my side! But they still said no,” complained my good friend Daniel, a Managing Director at the company where he has spent the last 12 years. We spoke on the phone following his annual salary review. He was expecting a raise and a bonus, and unlike previous years received neither. “I can’t understand it. It makes absolutely no sense.” He continued, “This was my most successful year ever. You should have heard the praise I received from them just last month… it just wasn’t supposed to go this way! What am I supposed to do now, give up? Go work for the competitor? I’m just so frustrated!”
Over the last month I’ve heard the same story from multiple friends and colleagues; and if I reflect back, I can think of countless examples from people I know, and even experiences of my own where despite preparation and skill, despite all signs pointing to an assumed outcome, communication took a hard left turn from expectations.
Whether asking for project budget, seeking additional compensation per contract, pitching a new idea for a campaign, or just trying to get friends to agree on a ding-dang brunch plan, sometimes things just do not go your way. So, what should you do when you the outcome you get is a far cry from the outcome you wanted?
The short and annoying answer is (and always will be) it depends, but to identify a few tactics that could be helpful, I thought we might take a look at what improv may have to offer here.
What can improv teach us about flexibility, resilience, and how we might handle things a little better when they do not go our way?
It might be hard to imagine that in an art form where people are working without a plan and discovering stories together in real time that there are any lessons to be gleaned for the real world, where disappointment is high stakes. But actually improvisers drill quite a few things to help make sense of the unexpected. Improv is filled with unexpected offers, just like “real” life.
How Improvisers maintain flexibility and resilience: The Improv Ethos
Improvisers adhere to a few simple ideas that allow us to make theatre together even as complete strangers. Physical limitations, language/cultural barriers, and the amount of experience two people do or do not have are easily surmounted by a set of values that guide the work (which we refer to as play). Those values are simple: play the scene you’re in (not the scene you wish you were in), see everything as an offer (meaning something one can play with), and be changed (carry a willingness to demonstrate how your scene partner’s choice affects you).
Play the scene you’re in…
When things are going well, with the show in full flow state feeling fun and the audience loving it, this principle is effortless to maintain, making the unexpected twists and turns feel like a complete joy ride!
When things feel clunky, when the audience is cold and the choices in the scene feel less obvious, the unexpected can feel like a wrench in the gears. That’s when improv players end up in the danger zone of shoulding all over the scene (it should have been this, it should be that) and really need to call on the key skills we drill and train to be help us shift the energy back to a flow state.
These skills of letting go of the outcome, whole body listening, saying what’s obvious, and relying on truth to inspire us, help us stay in the present moment by maintaining an open and excited perspective on what is possible with what is happening right now. Since players can’t change the past, and can’t control the future any better than you can, generally speaking all we’ve got is how open we allow ourselves to be around what is happening in front of us.
One of the experiences we use to practice flexibility in the moment is called Best Improviser in the World/Worst Improviser in the World. One player’s job is to be the worst by saying and doing things to perfectly block the natural flow of the scene. The other players job is to be the best by making the other players choices look and sound like they belong in the scene, while keeping in mind that the audience has witnessed all the previous offers so they don’t just disappear.
Here's an example of how one of these scenes might sound: The Worst Improviser: I hate basketball The Best Improviser: Agreed! Let’s put together a protest! TWI: That sounds stupid. TBI: That’s because it is… so stupid it might just work! TWI: I’m eating a sandwich. TBI: Great idea, we’ll need our strength for the protest. TWI: What are you even talking about? TBI: You’re right. We should keep the protest a secret for now… TWI: No secrets! TBI: Ok..it's ballsy. But I'll go ahead and alert the press!
Practicing with games like this one help us speed up the amount of time it takes us to react to stuff that might otherwise block up our mental resourcefulness. This doesn’t mean that we never have a bad show, and are free from disappointment. All it means is that we train ourselves to bounce back faster, to notice more of what is happening in the moment and first and foremost bring ourselves back to the present moment by listening, looking for and noticing more.
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Applying this idea to the real world:
You know who else cannot change the past or control the future? EVERYBODY… and that means you too!
What can often get in our way in communication is the amount of time we spend in disbelief that we are hearing what we are hearing. Instead of having the conversation we are in, we’ll waste time trying to make the conversation become what we wanted it to be all along. This comes at a high energy cost, and very rarely yields the desired result. If you’ve ever left a conversation feeling like you were hitting your head against a brick wall, it’s highly likely it was because of this dynamic.
Sometimes you can pivot in the moment. The advantage of things happening in real life instead of paying audience, is you can take more than a second to breathe and assess. Sometimes to pivot well, you need to take a brief step away and piece together the real offers on the table.
I knew we needed to upgrade our systems for sharing and collaborating on documents at work. It’s a small firm with no IT department, so people were just emailing copies of documents back and forth! It was bonkers!
Every time I brought it up with my boss, they’d turn me down before I could even get the whole idea out with the lamest excuse that “we tried something like that once and everyone hated it,” even though they hadn’t.
Finally I made myself take a pause on trying to convince them. It was obvious they had no way of understanding what the difference would be between status quo and what I was proposing.
Instead I just spent time asking questions about what people liked about how we did things (which, was nothing btw), and what people wished would be different… and then wrote all of that down.
At a team meeting one day. I said “Here’s a list of changes you’ve all said would make our work flow easier. If I could make these happen… what fears come up for you around that, and what would need to be true for you to get excited about the change?”
I got the green light after that meeting and within 30 days had completely overhauled how we collaborate on documents.
See everything as an offer
Let’s go down the rabbit hole just a little further, and spend some time on viewing everything as an offer, not just the stuff we like and want.
In the mainstream, the idea of building on offers has been reduced down to two words, “yes, and….”
You may have attended a corporate team building event, read an article in Forbes, or heard a keynote speaker (personally I prefer this wisdom) tout the power of these two tiny words. Maybe you found the idea resonant! For many of you, what sounded like a nice idea, when you tried it on for size, turned out to be less practical than you hoped, or was only useful in brainstorming. That’s because the idea is actually a lot more nuanced. It’s easy to literally say yes, and build on offers you like. Difficult offers are… well, difficult to accept!
The good news is that accepting offers doesn’t mean literally saying yes. It simply means finding some way to recognize the offer so that you can do something with it. If you can build a mental habit of seeing everything as an offer can unlock an immense amount of possibility. The list of tactics improvisers use on stage to accept offers is actually quite long.
Here are just a few ways improvisers accept offers on stage: labeling through character opinion, having an emotional response, repeating what was said, silence, reminiscing, presenting an alternate offer, telling a story, offering a connected idea… the list goes on.
A scene, a story, a whole improvised play follows the path it does, by players noticing the offers in the moment, picking one, recognizing it and then building on that idea with one of the many tactics available to make a simple, obvious, natural choice that builds on what has been established.
Applying this idea to the real world:
All of the tactics listed above are natural, and equally available off stage. Perhaps you can imagine how the tactic of simply telling a story, or repeating what was said, might have been helpful in your last meeting or interaction, if you could go back and do it again.
Of course, using any of these tactics relies on the primary step of noticing what the offers are in the moment, and then picking one to build with which might mean letting go of what you thought was going to happen, what you hoped they would say, or what you wish you had said or done prior to right now.
The other day my boss stopped by my desk and asked if I had a moment. I thought they were going to ask for my feedback on a project and instead they gave me a piece of feedback on my ‘tone’ in meetings! I was taken aback, and my initial instinct was to be defensive. Instead I took a deep breath and asked myself “what’s the offer here?”
Since an easy offer was that we’re both humans and have emotions, I decided that I would just recognize the truth of the moment.
I said “That couldn’t have been easy to bring to me. It’s definitely hard to hear. Tell me more?”
She seemed relieved when I said the part about it being hard for her to bring up and we ended up having a really good conversation about the difference between intent and perception. I’m also really glad she gave me the feedback. I don’t want to come off like some kind of a-hole at work!
The final principle is really simple to understand conceptually, but can be surprisingly less than obvious in the moment, to simply be changed by what you experience. Being changed by the choices your partner makes actually takes practice and intentionality. It sounds simple, but for some simply being affected can be a stretch.
I’ve seen countless improv scenes get stuck in a boring transaction, have an argument for far too long, or simply have a conversation that goes in circles. The worst: one player announces a tragedy, and the other player simply shrugs…. All of these improv sins stem from the players on stage being unwilling to take onboard the offers they’re being given and let them shift their characters perspective or feelings.
Compelling theatre pulls us in as an audience, whether it’s comedy or tragedy, when the characters are changed! Sometimes the change can be as small as one character moving from seated to standing. Sometimes change can be big, stretching over multiple scenes in a full arc that clearly demonstrates a characters growth or destruction.
Yes we’re making it up on the spot, but improv theatre/comedy is meant to bring joy to our audience, which is why improvisers practice this skill so intently. One of the fastest ways out of a scene that feels like its spiraling downhill into the land of never-ending boredom, is to allow our character to be moved in some way.
Being changed by all offers would be exhausting and also unnatural and unnecessary. The improv way is to simply carry with us a willingness to be changed.
One of my favorite training exercises for this also helps us practice taking our time and leaving space, which are wonderful skills in their own regard. Respond Emote React. In pairs, partners take turns (player 1) making a verbal offer, then (player 2) reacting emotionally before finally responding with words. This helps us build the muscles of allowing emotion to inform a scene, of leaving space… and of course being changed!
Applying this idea to the real world:
We all convince ourselves that we’re really good listeners, that we’re flexible co-workers, and that the world around us is stubborn and foolish for not listening to what we think is right and true. Many of you have likely received training (maybe even from me!) in listening techniques, clear communication and conflict resolution.
If there is one thing I wish more people would adopt, it would be this. Carry within you a willingness to be changed.
When you hear a point of view that goes counter to your own, be willing to change your mind. When you are handed a challenge, be willing to rise to it. When the conversation you thought you signed up for isn’t going your way, be willing to recognize that the burning question may not be what you thought it was.
Niko shares this story:
We had a policy at the theatre that required some things of our audience that one of our company members felt strongly opposed to.
At first she just kinda disappeared from the company, and I didn’t really question or think about why. I found out why a few months later, when I invited her to join the run of an upcoming musical, and she said no.
I helped make the policy, but I also cared about this member of our company, so I invited her to talk and share her perspective.
She brought up some things I hadn’t even considered when we put together the policy. After we talked I really thought about what she said, and we made some adjustments.
Our theatre is better because of her.
Wrapping this up…
If you want to feel more flexible when your life, your work, your presentation, your meeting, your whatever takes an unexpected turn, see if you can adopt more of an Improv Ethos by thinking about playing the scene you’re in, seeing everything as an offer and carrying a willingness to be changed.
Do you have a specific challenge you’d like help with? Have more questions about ways to apply these principles to your communication?
The next piece in this series focuses on The Circle of Expectations or Possibilities and balancing two improv concepts in real life: Jump & Justify