A long post today - you might want to read this one in bursts. It starts with improv but it's really about being excellent to each other. Performing improv can be addictive. Partly it’s the adrenaline rush you get from stepping on stage armed with nothing but trust in your fellow performers and in your own ability to be interesting. But a large part of what makes improv compelling is that it’s intensely focused on positive, constructive interactions. And positive interactions are the fundamental cause of happiness. That’s got to be important in itself, right?
This post is solely about positive interactions. Just in case you’re fully cashed up with happiness, and need results: positive interactions are also a great way to get more value from people.
The currency of improvisation
The currency of improvisation
The basic unit of exchange in improv is the offer (like when you politely offer someone some tea). An offer is when you put forward an idea, no matter what method you use. You might say it, “it’s a fine brisk Christmas morning, isn’t it?” or you might shiver and rub your elbows to indicate it’s cold, or look at someone in surprise, or declare a scene direction (“cut to the first time they met!”). When someone makes an offer, you’re supposed to accept it. That keeps everything flowing creatively.
Reacting with flair (or not)
Let’s take a look at the four basic types of reactions to someone else’s offer.
- Embrace the idea and add to it. This is often referred to as “yes, and…” – it’s much more than just acknowledging or agreeing with an idea. It requires that you embrace the idea so hard that you add to it. With enthusiasm. “Yes, and…”ing is active and constructive.*
- Acknowledge the idea but add nothing. The name for this is “wimping” - it can be quite pleasant (but exhausting) to work with something who will go along with everything but not come up with any ideas of their own. Wimping is supportive, but in the most passive way possible.
- Brush aside the idea, after a perfunctory acceptance. This is often called “shelving”, because you’re putting that idea back on the shelf – your own idea is more important! “That’s nice, Dougal; but first! We’ve got to rescue the trapped fishermen!” Shelving destroys the original idea, but only passively, by saying that it’s not important enough to address now.
- Reject the idea, or destroy any possibility of advancement. This is known as “blocking” and is regarded as so corrosive to creativity that it’s practically taboo. Blocking actively destroys the original idea
* Please note that you don’t have to use the literal word “yes” when doing this. You might even use the word “no” while still embracing the reality of what has been stated.
Do these four cases sound familiar? They might, if you’re interested in Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology, or Shelly Gable’s work on positive relationships. About six years ago, Shelly looked at how people reacted to “good news” types of remarks, and drew up the responses in a two by two framework of active vs passive, and constructive vs destructive. She found that people who engaged in active, constructive responses were more pleasant to be around, and that happier couples respond to each other that way, habitually.
An active & constructive responses might be, “What’s the best thing that’s going to come out of this?” while an active & destructive responses might be, “A lot of crime happens in that area. And you bought a house there? Hmm."
The types of responses people make when improvising map directly onto this matrix. For over fifty years, improvisers have been intently studying such responses, dissecting them, giving feedback to each other, and exploring combinations of them. And there’s a lot more to say than just “active, constructive interactions are good!” (Also we have colourful names for all of them.)
Variety is great. Good stuff needs bad stuff to stand out from.
The first point I want to make is that all of the responses have their place (although the hero of the story is “yes, and…”). But not if you overuse it.
Imagine dealing with someone who embraced the active, constructive approach at all times. Each time you speak to that person, your comments are met with whoops of joy, followed by an exploration of your feelings. You quickly come to regard that person as happy, childlike, and about as focused as a tornado made of cats. Indiscriminate enthusiasm can also come across as insincere.
Conversely, if you’re the one who feels compelled to say yes to every new idea, you will burn out.
Shelving ideas for later certainly has its place. It isn’t your turn all the time, but it is your turn at least sometimes, so be ready to shelve someone’s interruption if you have to. Some days, you may have to be a little pushy about it!
Even blocking can be necessary, to avoid feeding a really catastrophic idea.
I get the basics. What would a dramatic response look like?
Beyond accepting, wimping, shelving and blocking lie several other possibilities.
The über version of “yes, and…” is reframing, sometimes called The Tilt. This is where the responder not only takes the offer on board, but reinterprets it or reframes it in a way that seems blindingly obvious now, even though the rest of us never saw it coming. Typically, this moment of insight and perfect clarity leaves everyone with their mouth hanging open in wonderment (like the reveal at the end of Fight Club).
Here’s an example:
Person A: I’m consulting on so many different projects, that I never feel like an expert at any of the meetings.
Person B: So you’re always approaching things with a fresh perspective? It must be great not to fall into the same assumptions that everyone else is making!
Beyond wimping is waffling, which is where the performers are so worried about what the future may hold that they’ll spend their time focusing on minutiae, or engaging in meaningless transactions, or creating lists of things to do (but never actually doing them). These are all ways to delay making progress, because progress implies change, and change is scary.
The extreme version of shelving is hogging, where you make the whole thing about you. It can be arresting to watch someone hogging the limelight because they can be loud and energetic, but the rest of the team wonders why they bothered to show up. Repeated hogging is destructive of good team relations.
There’s something that’s worse beyond blocking: personal attacks. Yuk. Not something you want to see on stage, or in a professional setting; thankfully it’s rare!
Play the long game
If you find yourself defaulting to wimpy or destructive responses, please keep in mind the seeds you are sowing for future interactions.
Whatever behaviour you engage in, it will encourage more of that behaviour. People who feel they aren’t being listened to will stop listening, people who feel that they’re being shot down in flames will become more negative, and people who don’t contribute when asked will find that their input is no longer sought. But if you meet people’s ideas with enthusiasm and respect, they will be even happier to contribute… and so will you be.