The Great Improv Paradox

Repeat after me:  Zip! Zap! Zop!

Now let’s pass Zip Zap Zop around like you’re tossing a ball.

If you drop the ball, throw your arms up in celebration and shout “Moooo!”

Recess on the playground?   No.  This is a corporate training class.

The subject? Leadership, collaboration, relationship-building, innovation, presence. Could be any one of these topics.

The participants? Executives across all industries, of all ages and personality styles.

The method of delivery? Improv.

Yes, improvisation. The basis for that wacky TV show Who’s Line is it Anyway?; the basis of those silly party games your 12-year-old geeky kids want to play.  And, more impressively, the skill set of countless actors in all genres, from Steve Carell to Tina Fey to Robin Williams. That improv.

So what’s it doing in an office setting? You might say, “I’m not interested in being on SNL, and I don’t need or want to be funny at work, so why should I study improv with regard to my business?”

Good question.

Well, it turns out that the skills it takes to be a successful improviser — listening, adaptability, trust, authenticity, focus/being present, releasing control/pre-conceived notions, being open to outcome — are the very skills needed to be successful in in the workplace; specifically, in building relationships.

And those skills – contrary to popular belief – are not innate. It’s not “you either got it or ya don’t.” No, improv is a set of skills – like anything else you might learn: cooking, basketball, French – improv is based on a skill-set that can be learned. And to learn those skills, you must practice them. That’s where an Applied Improv program comes in. It’s an opportunity to practice the skills needed to successfully build authentic, flexible, collaborative business relationships. It sounds like a paradox — practicing improvisation – yet that’s exactly what successful professional improvisational performers do. They practice.

Improv is a collaborative art form, similar to being on a sports team. Coaches don’t usually throw players all together and simply say “use your innate talent!”  No, you practice skills. If it’s basketball, you drill passing and shooting and dribbling. You get to know your teammates so that you are in tune with each other. When you get out there and finally play a game, you have no idea what will happen in that game – there’s no script for how it will proceed – you improvise…and you do so with the skills you have practiced. And when it comes time to shoot or pass the ball, you will have drilled those skills enough that you know just what to do. This is analogous to improvising a scene on stage, and, more importantly, to having a successful relationship-enhancing business interaction.

So what do you practice when you practice improv?

Being Present.  In order to be able to quickly access and apply honed skills in the middle of a basketball game, improv scene, or business meeting, you need to be flexible and adaptable. And in order to be flexible, you need to be fully present. In other words, you cannot hold on to a pre-conceived idea; rather, you must be comfortable responding in-the-moment. For those of us who have a script running in our head, an agenda that we feel must be met, or an impatient streak, this is the trickiest of skills to master. “Being present” is the improviser’s best tool. It allows us to listen, connect, and engage our scene partner and the audience. Similarly, in a work setting, listening, connection, and engagement are enhanced when we are present because we can flex and adapt to the situation as is needed in the moment.

Listening.  Listening is another essential workplace skill that is practiced in no better way than through improv. Real listening yields connection and trust; improv teaches us the secret: focus all attention on the other person. Release control. Release attachment to outcome. Release the script in your head. Has any conversation ever played out exactly the way you prescribed? How could it? Collaboration for an improviser works moment by moment, one “offer” at a time. We call anything we say or do on stage an “offer”. Our partner then accepts that offer and builds upon it. If we think ahead, we are not listening, and will miss the next offer. 

It’s natural to have an inner agenda when entering into a conversation – if you call a meeting with grantee or a colleague, there’s obviously a reason, and a desired outcome. What if the other person has something pressing they’d like to discuss? Or a different point of view about the same issue?  What if s/he feels strongly that you should be doing a scene about project X and you feel you should be doing a scene about project Y?  If you continue to make offers without listening, the scene will go nowhere fast, and will likely leave everyone frustrated and goals unaccomplished.

Yes, And.  The concept of accepting your partner’s offer and building on it is called “Yes, and.” Practicing ”Yes, and” — and it does take practice — conditions you to listen and build, to truly collaborate with your partner (your client, your stakeholder, your direct report, your peer) so that instead of “piling on” and getting nowhere, you are “building on” and moving forward, together.  When your partner (client, stakeholder, direct report, peer) feels that you are collaboratively listening, s/he is more likely to trust you, and thus more likely to be influenced by you.  If you want to develop leadership influence, you must first build trust, and trust thrives on perceiving the other person as fully present with you, fully collaborative, and fully flexible. 

Many of my clients tell me “but I have an agenda to get to – I can’t be totally flexible — if I listen and build off of everything my (client/stakeholder/direct report/colleague) says, we might never get to my agenda!” And then what?  What would happen if you didn’t get to your agenda because you were actually listening and building off of what your partner was saying?  Might your partner feel heard? Yes! When we feel heard, are we more likely to trust someone?  Yes.  When we build trust, does productivity increase? Yes.  Invest time in creating a relationship that is based on connection, engagement, and trust.  Experiment with how your relationship changes when you let go of driving a desired outcome and explore the discovery of a positive outcome you might have never imagined resulting from this interaction.  That’s improv.

Step out of your comfort zone and study improvisation. It will change the way you work. It offers opportunities to drill your skills — just like dribbling, shooting, and passing —so that you can easily employ those skills in the moment they’re needed. Zip Zap Zop is just one of hundreds of exercises focused on a particular skill or concept of improv. Being present, recovering from mistakes, listening, yes, and-ing – these are the foundational skills  and there’s much more. Improv exercises provide a fun, interactive, safe, passionate approach to practice the skills that go far beyond “subject expert” and dive into the realm of leadership, partnership, teamwork, salesmanship, and the ability to inspire, innovate, and rally. It’s not just fun and games. It’s serious play. And I dare say the whole world would play together more effectively if we all practiced a little improv.

About the author(s)

Coach and Facilitator