Over the years as I have navigated the world of PR and telling clients’ stories, I’ve been on the lookout for new ideas — and places to find them. For example, I often stop at a magazine stand as I make my way through the airport to buy a magazine or two that I would normally not read. Not only does this expand my knowledge on subjects I don’t know much about (feeding my curiosity), but it helps me come up with cool ideas or story angles that I could apply to something on which I was working.
Recently, I decided take this one step further. In an attempt to exercise the muscle that is my brain, I wanted to do something that would improve my ability to think and react quickly, and (turns out dramatically) challenge my comfort zone. So, I signed up for an improv class. Excited and nervous, I walked into my first class completely unsure of what I was about to experience, or just how far I would be pushed outside of what I consider comfortable.
The result was an incredibly fun, challenging and surprisingly insightful six-week experience. While I went in expecting to improve my ability to think quickly, it was the other things I took away — like how to be a better manager and participant within my company — that surprised and delighted me.
Always “yes, and”
If you’ve ever been to an improv show (or watched Whose Line Is It Anyway?), you might be familiar with this concept. Simply put, in improv, it’s important for the actors to build on ideas, not shoot them down. So, if someone throws out a scene or idea, rather than the other person saying “no, because…” it’s important to say “yes, and…” — and build on the idea. Can you imagine how boring and awkward an improv show would be if all the actors shot down the other actors’ ideas?
Now, imagine yourself in your next team meeting, and someone brings up an idea. Maybe that idea isn’t fully fleshed out or something that you think has wings. Stop for a minute and ask yourself what about that idea has merit, and how you could make it better, take it further or think about it from a slightly different perspective. Not only does “yes, and” get you to better ideas, but it builds the confidence and morale of everyone around you.
If you are like most people, you start thinking of what your response is going to be before the person you are listening to is done talking. While rude and sometimes uncomfortable in day-to-day conversation, in improv doing this could make for some really awkward and disjointed scenes. To try to teach us how to listen better, our instructor had us do a really cool game where we had a conversation — one line at a time — with another person where we had to begin our sentence with the last word of the other person’s sentence. As soon as we started, we realized how hard this habit is to break and how much attention it takes to really listen to what someone is saying.
Doing this might make for some funny looks at your next staff meeting, so maybe it isn’t something you have to do out loud. Rather, practice quietly listening to every word your colleagues say, and work to restrain from talking until they are completely finished with their thought. In doing so, you will look thoughtful, respectful and even smart, as you build on others’ complete ideas.
Ask yourself: “what’s the worst thing?”
My comfort zone exists in a “before improv” and “after improv” world, with what I feel comfortable doing today dramatically different than before. I remember the exact moment it changed. Our instructor asked us to get into a circle and proceeded to explain the rules for the game we were going to play. It was called song circle. Simply put, the group chooses a theme — let’s say love — and each person must take turns going into the middle of the circle and singing part of a song that the last person/song inspired. A person remains in the middle — singing — until the next person taps them out.
When we were done, the instructor applauded each of us and said: “Congratulations! You didn’t die.” And, she was right. The absolute worst thing that could have happened to any of us as we stepped into that circle was death. And, funny enough, not even the fear of singing in front of all those people could kill us. Since then, I have realized how true and applicable this is to so many different areas of life. It doesn’t necessarily make the nerves go away, but it sure does put what you’re about to do into perspective. And, that alone, should make doing hard or uncomfortable things just a little bit easier.
The ability to challenge myself in new and uncomfortable ways (and live to tell about it) has inspired me to continue to identify new ideas and concepts that I can apply to every day experiences as well as new ways to expand my brain. Hopefully it will do the same for you.