Life lessons from improv

Yes, and… a whole lot more

I’ve recently been thinking about so-called ‘soft skills’. As a consultant working in design and innovation, I work with people in teams, I interview users, I run workshops and of course speak to clients from time to time. In situations like this, those soft skills are essential to doing a good job – they’re not explicitly technical but are nontheless learnable and useful, and can be developed. Things like self-awareness and emotional intelligence are also quite useful in my personal life, to say the least.

Reflecting on this, I realised that there are also some deep lessons I learned from improv (improvised comedy) when I used to do it, once upon a time. Here are three insights that I’ve managed to distil into words.

 

Validation is important, and is not the same as literally agreeing

“Yes, and…” is one of the first (and most famous) lessons in improv. In order for a scene to progress rather than shut down, you have to accept the offer given to you, and build on it. When you’re starting out, this means literally agreeing with your scene partner. Something like this:

               A: “Hello, I’d like to buy some timber please”

               B: “Yes, certainly madam, perhaps I could interest you in this delightful piece of birch…” (etc.)

The opening line offers us a reality: we’re in a timber shop, A is the customer, and B is the shop assistant. B’s answer affirms this, and adds to it with the suggestion of birch wood. The scene can continue to build detail in the characters and the setting from here.

I’ve seen this idea used in a design / innovation context before – for example, the idea that we can build on each other’s ideas in an ideation session, or withhold criticism and be universally positive. This is fine and useful. But there’s more, which I think cuts to the real ethos of improv, and which is more universally helpful.

Let’s have a look at Level 2 of ‘yes, and’: accepting the reality you’ve been offered without literally agreeing verbally. Viz:

               A: “Welcome to Tim’s Timbers, how can I help you?”

               B: “I’d like to buy some oak please”

               A: “Oh, I’m afraid we’re fresh out of oak”

               B: “Oh really? That’s a shame… got any ash?”

               A: “Just sold the last piece this morning.”

               (etc.)

In this version, the shop assistant affirms that we’re in a timber store, but regrettably the customer’s first choice isn’t available. And nor is the second. The actor is saying “yes and” to the offer – and in this reality, his character is literally saying no. This develops into a pattern which is a kind of game, which is where the comedy comes from. (And yes, I’ve totally ripped off the Monty Python cheese shop sketch here.)

The life lesson here is that you can disagree with others without invalidating them and their reality. Because when you invalidate someone, you lose their trust, respect and patience, and if you do it on purpose you’re being a douche.

 

Accepting situations and being flexible

In long-form improv, you’re not playing a pre-set game but instead let the scene emerge from the opening. You might find yourself entering a scene opposite someone who has a very clear idea for the scene and how it should pan out. They don’t really want to improvise a scene together, they want you to be in their scene. We’ll call them the idea-pusher. It gets painful, because whatever their scene partner says will likely be outside or against their idea, and they will keep trying to get it ‘back on track’ when you say something ‘wrong’.

There are two ways to deal with this problem, both of them readily applicable to everyday life.

1.      Communicate and listen

If the idea-pusher has a great idea or story in their heads, and they need another actor to ‘get’ what they want to do, this needs to be communicated. In improv, communicating something to another actor without giving the game away to an audience is a great skill, and it gets more accurate the longer the same actors work together. An equally obvious but equally overlooked point is that the recipient also needs to listen and notice when something is being communicated.

The “group-mind” phenomenon of an experienced improv team is beautiful and bewildering to see in action: the communication/listening work is often invisible to an audience – but it’s there, built on intuition informed by years of experience working with the other people.

Fortunately in real life we don’t need to hide our intentions from an audience most of the time, so this restriction on communication does not exist. Despite this - alas - many people feel they either can’t or won’t communicate their idea, and get very frustrated when life doesn’t go how they wanted it to (despite nobody else knowing the script they were supposed to follow). This leads me to point number two here:

2.      Own your side of the street

The other thing you need to be OK with is that sometimes your efforts at communication will fall flat, and the other person just won’t pick up on your idea. The thing to do here is to adapt and build on whatever has actually happened in the scene, rather than sticking like a limpet to your idea of what “should” happen. This idea of going with the flow is by no means a passive stance: the listening and communication still need to be there, and an active engagement with the scene, body language, character, and so on. But in the absence of mind-reading, we all need to accept that some things are outside our control – particularly other people.

 

Anticipating the best from others allows it to emerge

As we saw with ‘yes, and…’, validation and mutual support between scene partners are essential for creating a believable reality and letting a scene flow. But this goes further. As Del Close, the originator of a lot of modern improv, once said:

If we treat each other as geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.

I think this is a beautiful sentiment, and I believe the same is true outside the theatre. It is never possible to know another person fully, after all; in any situation, you are only seeing a tiny facet of their personality and behaviour. Even after years of knowing someone, they can surprise you - and that’s a good thing!

Even if someone is acting like a bone-headed cretin, we should make the conscious decision that somewhere in that unseen part of them they have the capacity for excellence and artistry. This gives them the permission and safety to show it, and puts you in a frame of mind to recognise it from them when they do.

(Mind you, that person is probably working through something similar about you, in their head.)

 

 

I’ve found that all three of these insights have stood me in good stead since I learned them a number of years ago, both in terms of establishing a meaningful empathetic connection with others, and in terms of recognising and maintaining personal boundaries. Yay boundaries.

I’d love to know if you have any thoughts having read this – particularly if you have ever done improv.