Why Your Next Challenging Conversation Should Be an Improv Scene

By Cathy Salit

What are your challenging conversations? We all have them—delivering (or receiving) a performance review, leading a dysfunctional team, negotiating a raise, dealing with a strong disagreement… I’m sure you have your own.

A big part of what makes these conversations challenging is how we feel when we’re having them—defensive, unsure, angry, demoralized, frightened (insert your favorite not-so-positive adjective here).

Now, imagine these conversations as scenes in an improv performance. (If you need help, jump over to YouTube and watch a couple of clips from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”). What if—as an improviser—you could play, build, create, riff (fill in your own positive verb here) with everything happening around you?

Well, you can, because every human being has the ability to improvise. Without it we never would have learned to talk, or walk, or make up games on a playground—kids are incredible improvisers, and that natural ability never goes away. But as adults, we can and do become pretty “scripted” in how we perform the “scenes” (the conversations and relationships) of our lives and work. But if you start working on improvising again—walk or talk in a new way, ask a question when you would normally say nothing or argue, use different body language, etc. —you can continue to invent who you are, what you do, how you do it, and how you feel, see, think, and respond. You gain access to a much broader range of options in any conversation, challenging or otherwise.

So I’m suggesting that you perform every conversation, every interaction as an improvisational scene, in which you are both a performer and a director. How? Here are some of the fundamentals from the improviser’s toolbox that you can use to make your challenging conversations more productive, satisfying, and waaaay less stressful:

  1. Say “Yes, and” (and mean it!). This is the fundamental rule of improv that connects you with another person and gives you a collaborative and creative path forward. Improvisers relate to everything that anyone says or does as an “offer,” a gift. In “real life”, these offers are not just what you want or expect; often they’re unexpected, unfortunate, or something you wish you hadn’t just heard or seen. As an improviser, your job is to find a way to accept the offer—to say YES, i.e., this is what’s happening. And then (this is the AND in “yes, and”) you add something that builds on it, instead of our oft-used phrase (and attitude) of “yes, but” or “no, but.” So, give this a tryeventually it won’t be necessary to say the words, “yes, and”; because it’s the action of accepting the offer and building with it that matters. But start with the words this weekand when someone says or does something at work that throws you off balance, notice it. Then smile and breathe. “Yes-and” it.
  2. Make the other person look good. Improv guru Del Close said, “If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming them.” As an improviser at work, when you choose to relate to the words and actions of others as important and valuable, the “scene” (conversation, meeting) you create has a better chance of being important and valuable. Try this: start your response to something you hear by saying “What I like about what you said” or “What’s important about what ___ said is…”
  3. Follow the fear. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said: “Option A is not available. So let’s kick the s… out of Option B.” Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I say: as you face your challenging conversations as an improviser, you always have options for what to do next. One option might be more familiar or comfortable; the other is unfamiliar, unusual, or even frightening. Say YES to the latter.

One last thing: What we call things makes a difference in how we experience them, and “challenging” or “difficult” aren’t neutral terms. Labeling conversations with those words obscures the reality that they’re conversations, between you and other human beings. Not that this makes them easy, but if we don’t segregate them out into a special category, they can be less of a boogeyman (or boogeywoman). We’re still all people, who have this amazing, unique and creative capacity to perform and improvise all the scenes of our lives.

Cathy Salit is a performer and co-founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books) is on sale everywhere books are sold.

Follow her on Twitter: @CathySalit

Learn more about Performance of a Lifetime

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