Have you ever taken an Improv class? Until recently, I hadn’t. It seemed daunting, intimidating and slightly dangerous.

So when a friend who is in the middle of a 100-day project (she’s doing things that scare her in an effort to be bolder!) invited me, I accepted the challenge. If she can be more daring, so can I!

With a few butterflies, I signed up for a test drive class at The Second City. Turns out, it was more fun and less intimidating than I expected, and introduced me to skills that I suspect will be useful in my everyday life. I didn’t take the class planning to re-think my communication style, but that’s precisely what happened.

How Improv Can Lead Us Toward Common Ground

I signed up for the class as an improv newbie. I knew very little about the art form and had no idea how the class would be structured. It was a relief to discover that while the folks at The Second City take comedy seriously, the atmosphere is incredibly relaxed.

For two hours we played games and participated in exercises that revealed essential pillars of improv. As the lessons were introduced, each was more applicable to effective communication and collaboration than the last. Here are a few of those lessons.

Loosen Up

We started the evening with a simple game to get our bodies moving. As we ran around the room, I could feel my tension and fear begin to fade. Right away, I noticed my classmates looked as silly as I did and there was comfort in that. I didn’t feel alone, I felt less edgy, and the physical movement helped me to release nervous energy and loosen up.

When we find ourselves in a situation where we’re working toward common ground, it means we must be starting from opposite sides. Tension, fear and adversarial energy are inherent in that. While some of that energy can be useful, too much can be a roadblock. Remembering to take a minute to loosen up — either physically or mentally — is helpful. Jump up and down, shake it out, or just take a deep breath to let go of some that excess tension.

Active Listening

At one point we were paired up with a classmate and challenged to start a sentence with the last word of our partner’s sentence. It worked like this:

Partner One: I like strawberries.
Partner Two: Strawberries are good for you.
Partner One: You should eat them every day.
Partner Two: Day or night, strawberries are a delicious treat.

What if we couldn’t plan our response until someone else had completed her thought?

Throughout the game, you are forced to listen all the way to the end of your partner’s thought. The game’s parameters keep you from thinking about what you’re going to say next until your partner is completely finished with her sentence. You can’t jump ahead. You’re forced to stay present and listen carefully.

Can you imagine the implications this could have in our personal and professional communication? What if we couldn’t plan our response until someone else had completed her thought?

Supportive Collaboration

The one improv phrase I was familiar with before class was, “Yes, and…” It appears to be the cardinal rule of this kind of comedy. During a skit, actors are compelled to keep the “yes, and…” spirit alive. No matter where your scene partner takes the story, you must agree and add to the narrative. It keeps things moving forward.

For instance, if your partner says, “I’m headed to market, can I grab you anything?” A “yes, and…” response might be, “Sure! Could you pick up some earplugs? That banging is really giving me a headache.” Your response is continuing to build on what your partner said. You’re creating a scene together. It’s much more helpful than responding, “No, I’ve got everything I need.” That response stops the momentum and leaves your partner alone to move the scene forward.

It isn’t always possible to affirm everything your conversation partner says — especially when you find yourselves on different sides of a professional issue. However, in the spirit of working toward common ground, it’s probably likely that there is a portion of what she said that you can build on. Focusing on that nugget of commonality and keeping the conversation moving forward would be helpful.

Relinquish Control and Share the Spotlight

improvisationWe played several different games that forced the entire to class to collaborate and create a story as a team. In one game we stood in a circle and took turns contributing one word to tell a story. It was much harder than I thought it would be! We started with a title to give us some direction and began going around the circle each saying one word at a time.

It forced me to let go of my expectations about where the story was headed and share the story’s creation with my classmates. It also meant that sometimes my word was “the” or “and” — not the most exciting contributions. At the end our instructor pointed out, we all want to shape the narrative using words like “lasagna” or “snorkel,” but sometimes the sentence needs a simple conjunction to make sense.

Starting a conversation with expectations is easy. We often have a predetermined route the discussion is going to take and an end in sight. However, common ground is found collaboratively. That means we have to throw out the map, and trust our conversation partner. That means occasionally we have to let someone else take the wheel.

Embrace Joy

As I rode the train to class, I was nervous. What would it be like? Would I look silly? Would my classmates laugh at me for the wrong reasons? It didn’t take long to recognize that we were there to have fun. When performers have fun so does the audience. The best lesson of the night was to release the fear and embrace joy.

That lesson applies to tough conversations too. Finding common ground is a good thing. Getting there will likely be tough. It might force us out of our comfort zones. We will probably have to compromise, change our plans, or let go of some expectations. But in the end, collaboration has the potential to benefit more people than allowing just one side of an issue to be heard. I’ll admit that isn’t always easy for me. I think I know best. However, embracing the idea of seeking common ground and taking steps to find the joy in cooperation is making me a stronger person and better communicator.

After taking a test drive, I have my eye on an eight-week improv class this fall. While I don’t expect to be headlining on the main stage any time soon, I’m curious. I want to hone the communication skills the two-hour class introduced. Finding common ground continues to be a struggle for me personally and professionally. If I can laugh my way toward finding it, how can I resist? I’m not trying to say that improv could change the world — wait, maybe I am!

Featured Photo by Daniel Silva Gaxiola on Unsplash
Photo by Parker Whitson on Unsplash
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