Learn & Let Go - Dang! Things weren't supposed to go like that! (Part 3)
A third lesson improv can teach on maintaining resilience and flexibility when important communication goes sideways.
This essay is Part Three in a series on what to do when your communication goes sideways. For the month of March we’re exploring lessons from the world of improvisational theatre that can help you to be more flexible and resilient when faced with the unexpected.
Dang! Things weren't supposed to go like that! Now what? Learn and let go.
Oh, the tangled yarns we weave…
Earlier this week I sat down with my now 10-year-old step daughter to show her a crochet project I’ve been working on. I thought she might find it boring, but I wanted her to see that I have interests outside of work.
To my delight she was impressed and wanted to learn! So I showed her how to make a basic chain.
At first everything was going great! She was so impressed with herself that she started talking about how her new creation was going to become a blanket, and that it would be a fabulous gift to give her cousin who is due to become a mother next winter.
Five minutes later the yarn got a little tangled.
I smiled and showed her how to pull out a few loops to go back, regroup and try again… and she was not impressed, but she took a deep breath and pressed on anyway.
Shortly thereafter the yarn tangled again. That’s when it happened. Her face sunk, and her hands (and the yarn) dropped to her side.
Frowning, she declared, “I hate this. I don’t want to do it! I’m NEVER doing this EVER again.”
What’s this have to do with our interpersonal communication at work or anywhere else for that matter?
In crochet, when your yarn gets tangled up, or you miss an important stitch, the choices are to push forward and ignore the error (which leaves the ugliness embedded forever), to cut your yarn and start over (which may mean sacrificing yarn you’d rather incorporate), or unravel the yarn, correct the error and then pick things back up. No matter which choice you make, as long as you’re still crocheting, you learn what to do better as you go. The more you lean into learning, the easier it becomes to let go of being perfect the first time and your bounce back time gets faster. The longer one works in this medium, the more habitual pulling out stitches to make minor corrections becomes.
When we’re having difficult conversations, or presenting a report when we’re uncomfortable with public speaking, our emotional journeys can mirror more the experience of a 10 year old attempting to crochet, than the seasoned yarn artist who has the habit of learning and growing.
We might experience a moment when we think “okay, this is going fine…” and quickly find ourselves with tangled yarn proclaiming “I tried, I give up.” Or “I’m just bad at presenting.”
But in our communication skills, when things go awry we have a similar set of choices to someone working with yarn. We can cut things off “they’re dead to me!” We can pretend everything is fine when it’s not (just stuff it down!), or we can attempt to correct our mistakes before pressing on.
The important thing to recognize, is that we cannot be so short sighted as to think that these tangled moments in our communication are only as valuable as a resolution in the present moment. For some of our interactions, the learning we take from the experience, of failing or resolving the situation, will offer the biggest benefit we can receive: a better next time.
How Improvisers learn, let go, and grow from both bad and good shows
The first two parts in this series focused on strategies you can use to build flexibility during communication that has gone a bit wonky. Part 1 focused on the broad approach of adopting an improv ethos (read it here), and part 2 dug more deeply into the specific approach of playing with expectations through something improvisers call Jump & Justify (read it here).
While having strategies for in the moment interaction is a useful idea, unlike improvisers who often practice skills on a weekly basis, in the workplace we tend not to prioritize drilling our communication skills.
Whether we like it or not, it’s important to take interpersonal missteps and successes as opportunities to learn how to do better next time. Learning from and then letting go of our experience is another area where improvisers can teach us a thing or two.
If you’ve ever watched a live improv show, then you know that while many are good, and some are mind-blowingly awesome… others can be total stink bombs.
However it went, when the show ends and the performers leave the stage, there are a couple of things improvisers know:
That show is in the past now. No show will ever be exactly the same as that one. Whether it was good or bad, it’s over and done.
There are lessons to be learned, improvements to make for future, and moments to celebrate coming off every show.
Exchanging show notes is a simple ritual, but an important one. When an improv show is over, performers take a look back to evaluate what went well and why, along with what could’ve gone better and what to work on. Some groups gather to do notes immediately following a show, others wait for rehearsals, and solo players do a bit of both.
The questions we might answer during show notes might include:
What was a risk you took that paid off?
When did you feel you were best supported?
When did you feel you were most supportive of your scene partner?
What’s a risk you took that didn’t pay off and what would you do differently if you could?
What’s a skill you want to work on based on how this went?
During show notes, we try to learn as much as we can from what we did, and then after we’re done we let go of that show, letting it drift away into the ethers of other past experiences. In fact, some of us let go so completely, that on occasion I’ve had people ask me about a show a few weeks later, and I don’t even remember the show!
Applying this idea to real life
It might be time for you to start building a curiosity habit around how you show up in certain interactions, and whether what you’re doing is working for you or if it’s time to practice some new skills. This might be different than how this usually goes for you.
How often following a high stakes conversation that goes well, do you walk away asking, “Why did that go well? What might I do again in the future?” Instead it’s more likely that you simply let out a sigh of relief, and simply keep pushing forward.
Conversely, when communication has led you to deep polarization, do you take the time to ask yourself what contributions you made, and how you might do things differently? Or, do you simply write the other person off for their stupidity? Maybe you simply find ways to beat yourself up after something goes sideways.
The simplest way to give yourself show notes following your interpersonal communication successes and stresses is to ask yourself one question:
“What did I learn from this experience that I want to take with me into future interactions?”
When you have that answer, it’s time to let go.
Let go of wishing it different.
Let go of frustration and disappointment
Let go of control.
Just let go.
After all that moment is now in the past, and so is this one… and this one… AND THIS ONE!!
Keep the learning, let go of the rest.