Inviting others in: How to create duets instead of solos

“What do I need to know about you to make our time successful?”

The answers flew across the room, one after the other: “We like group work”, “We covered X last week”, “Some of us are international students”. On the second-to-last day of a packed graduate seminar, a different professor appeared at the door. Rather than plow through with material, she turned the class from a solo into a duet with a simple opening question.

We make explicit and implicit choices all of the time about who we want to follow, and what gatherings we want to be a part of, whether we’re buying a ticket to a comedy show,  enrolling in a training class, or to be a part of an organization.

Whether we are the gatherer or the ones being gathered, we have the power to shape the quality of the gathering with the choices we make. And, we are making these choices constantly, often in split-seconds, that either pull others in or push them away from the moments that actually seek to bring people together.

What this professor did is akin to what great gatherers do: they seek to destroy the distance between themselves and the audience to create intimacy, connection, and ultimately, engagement.

Crafting a duet instead of a solo requires a few key choices:

Lower your status: It’s tempting to believe that to gather others we need to have more status than our audience. Yes, an audience needs to feel that you have the reigns and are in control. But when we signal, “I’m just like you”, we are able to more effortlessly join you on the journey you’re about to take us on. This can be through a self-deprecating joke, or commenting on a common experience you all share (bad traffic on the way in, the weather, the news). Start from commonalities instead of highlighting differences.

Invite others in: To be an engaging gatherer is to firmly believe that an audience is as crucial an ingredient as the material you’re sharing. And, an audience wants to be seen as much as the gatherer does. That’s one reason why people shout things out at comedy show: they want to connect their experience with yours. The best gatherers know that the story they are telling or the content they are sharing is not about them. They constantly craft their work to figure out,” how is the material about the audience?”.

Connect to what they care about: Talking isn’t the only way to keep track of an audience’s engagement. The power of an in person experience lies is the human desire for connection. “This is a song about…” isn’t just a phrase musicians use to introduce songs. No matter our gathering we can find a way to connect what we’re sharing with something universal. This song goes out to anyone, who… might understand or connect with something I also care about, and thus creating an additive experience we all share.

When we make our gatherings solely about the person on the stage, we miss an opportunity for others to take our cause on and take it up. We also eschew them of the responsibility of being a part of the experience, or even more, owners of the experience. After all, if an audience didn’t want to be needed they could have stayed home. 

The story secrets of organizational change

In the world of Storytelling and Organizational Consulting, similar mantras are drilled into us – different words, similar meaning:

1. Make the audience the hero

2. Meet the client where they are

Both of these mantras speak to empowering people and companies, to help them feel, think, do, and see things differently so that they are called to action to enact change.

What this boils down to is – I see you (the client, the character, the company), where you are, for what you are…and I believe in you.

What this requires of us (those who lead change efforts and write the words to inspire) is patience, and a bit of scaffolding.

The best example I’ve seen of living out both of these mantras was Columbia University Professor William Duggan. I write about him often, and, nope, I probably won’t stop.

He had important words say, to teach, and to share. He drew us in carefully and artfully, by speaking the audience’s language (read, mostly MBA students), and skillfully partnering with them to help students come to important realizations themselves. Three acts. Small steps. A slowly built narrative balanced with equal parts logic and emotion at just the right times, each chapter asking for a bit more of us as we went.

In awe of his art, I asked him how he crafted his semester-long class. What was his secret?

Make the audience the hero. Meet them where they are.

He was teaching a slightly unconventional topic and wanted his students to come along for the ride. How often have we too had a great idea, something we care deeply about sharing, and want others to join in on? Hands up, everyone! I see you.

His reminder – you can’t do that by forcing an idea. That’s all head, no heart. He metaphorically held the idea and the a-ha out for his students in his out-stretched arm. And carefully crafted a sequence of steps where they’d be encouraged and motivated to keep reaching. One class after the other.

It’s not too much of stretch to equate this art to leadership.

But how often does our desire to push and prod instead of join and co-create take over our best impulses – especially under stress and threat?

How often does our desire to be seen as the hero and to not quite understand or empathize with where the client could be force us to push too far and stop the story? I’m certainly guilty.

To meet the client, the student, the reader where they are and to help them see that they are the hero is to recognize that we aren’t writing the story by ourselves. It’s not our story. It’s theirs. It’s not my change effort. It’s ours. Or, in many cases… it’s just theirs. And that’s a happy ending.

What’s the drill – February 20: A creative confidence booster

According to Tom Kelley of IDEO, a fear of being judged is the number-one reason why we’re not more creative.

It’s not due to a lack of ability…this is a matter of creative confidence.

We all have the natural ability to come up with novel ideas (yes yes, even you shaking your head in the back of the room). But not everyone has the courage to act on these ideas.

What if we did? How could increasing our creative confidence change our self-image and our capacity to have influence on the world?

Kelley’s mission to boost (nay, rocket fuel) the creative confidence of others is one I find myself equally passionate about.

Unlocking your creative potential can start with a simple re-frame of how you present your creative ideas. Here’s an example straight from Professor William Duggan at Columbia Business School:

When we present ideas we often end by asking the age-old question, “so what do you think?”. A useful question, yes, but one that can open the door for negative feedback and instant confidence deflation.

What if instead we simply said, “anything to add to my idea?”.

Presented in this way, we’re immediately signaling that there is room for the initial idea to expand. We still expect and desire honest feedback, but with a slight re-frame we are boosting collaboration, and hopefully over time, creative self-efficacy.

Navigating the end of the learning “honeymoon”

‘Learning honeymoon’ may not be a real term (yet) but we know how it feels. We are ensconced in deep learning, pumped with new ideas and experiences that elevate us and make our hearts sing (too much?!).  But what happens after we return from a formal learning experience be it Grad School or a half-day workshop. Then what?

I’m knee-deep in this feeling after just finishing my Masters Degree.

I tucked the material contents of nearly two years of Grad School away in my apartment closet and closed the door. After the binders, books, pens, and pencils were put away I wondered… was it all just a crazy dream?

The physical proof of learning is there but how can we work to sustain, apply, and ignite the learning to help others? 

When people return to the office from a learning experience we hope they feel inspired, yes – but what if they feel overwhelmed, unsure of where to start to apply something, and keep it in memory? This burden can keep even the most motivated learner feeling shaky.

For help I turn to one of my favorite professors,Adult Learning educator Dr. Stephen Brookfield.

Dr. Brookfield introduced me to some of the many ways adults experience the end of the learning honeymoon — be it impostorship, lost innocence, and cultural suicide. These may seem like harsh terms but they can leave adults feeling inferior, separated from the pack and lonely.

Chances are you’ve experienced this when you try to explain newly learned jargon and vocabulary to your friends.

What’s key to sustaining learning long after the honeymoon has ended is keeping a sense of community and opportunity for communication. The binders are a nice-to-have but connection and conversation keep the learning and thinking audible, inclusive and personal in a way that fuels dialouges going forward. The real challenge is in translating what you’ve learned for new and different audiences so that the learning is sustained and keeps spreading beyond the singular experience. With a bit more understanding and support, the honeymoon doesn’t need to end.

What’s the drill: May 3 – Back to the basics

Ah, just when you think you’ve become an Improvisation Jedi  a challenge emerges to test your will, your word, and the ability to make the conscious unconscious.

Enter, the group project.

Time and time again I’m reminded just how important the skills of an Improviser are, how much practice it takes to apply these behaviors on and off-stage and the reward for doing so.

Sometimes, we need a re-set or a re-boot to wake us up and remind us that these behaviors sometimes hide off-stage when things like stress, the need for control, deadlines, and “being right” want the spotlight for the quick ego boost they may provide.

Ah, silly person. No. These aren’t the rewards that count. It’s the reward that comes from being a team player that we desire most.

Be the kind of Improviser/group project member people want on their team… because you make them better.

So, how do we do that?

1. Notice More it is my obligation to notice, accept, and use every offer/idea that comes my way. We only notice the offers if we are listening and paying attention

2. Start with agreement — Because I believe everything my partner says is fascinating and even, genius — it is my obligation to notice their offer and start with a place of “yes”. To do this well, I need to withhold judgement and blocking in favor of more acceptance.

3. Build instead of tear down – “yes, and” the heck out of their idea.  Two heads are better than one. By building on their initial idea instead of simply sticking to my own I help make my partner look good…great, even!

What truly happens when we enact these guidelines and put them into practice every day is that we allow ourselves and our team-mates to be changed. It’s what happens when we notice, accept, and build more often. We’re in our own head less, and experiencing more.

And if we fail at this today, there is always tomorrow.

The Secret to Getting Ahead, via the NY Times

It would be easy to read yesterday’s NY Times profile of Professor Adam Grant and his book “Give and Take” and conclude the secret to success is to give more and take less.

We could come to similar, easily digestible conclusions with other, recent management development offerings. We could “lean in” more, “be more mindful”, or say yes or say no more often. But would this stick, or just make us more resentful, anxious, paranoid, or busy?

One thing is certain, I completely agree and appreciate Grant’s work and his message:

“The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

As I see it, the key to encouraging more giving is by focusing on the feeling it brings.  In essence, we follow the feeling. Sometimes it is indescribable, but it sticks with us. 

If giving more, leaning in, taking more time for yourself, or saying no more often makes you feel better, more whole, more on purpose, then that is reason enough to do more of it. Perhaps it will allow you to give with more gusto, to listen in a way that offers the support your friend or co-worker needs.

We can save the quantity vs. quality of giving debate for another time. I feel better when I give help, advice, support, encouragement, and that is a powerful, potent, push to do more of it.

Mixing motivation and giving isn’t easy. If we view giving as a means to an end, (“matchers”, as Grant calls them in his research) than we’re missing the point.

Improvisers give in the form of making their partner look good. We give because it is the Improvisers credo. It builds trust. And it fuels creativity by opening us up to more possibilities and points of view.

But we are also good at saying no when we need to, when it feels instinctively wrong.  We are skilled at the polite, “NOPE!”. Guilt or pushing doesn’t motivate giving, that is certain.

“The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.”

The impact of this work is profound if we give it and share it with others. It is the foundation of a learning organization, of a company of shared social capital and support. And it is sustained not because your boss told you to give more, or because you read about it in an article in the NY Times, but because you know how it feels when someone gave selflessly to you, and you want to pay it forward.

When failure is part of the rules

A few weeks ago, a woman in one of my workshops raised her hand and asked a very important question: “Are you telling us that it’s okay to fail?”

A group of incredibly smart, focused, and skilled future leaders was confused. No one had ever given them permission to fail before.

I told her what one of my mentors, Randy Nelson told me: life is not about error avoidance, it’s about error recovery.

I wasn’t actually encouraging them to fail, I simply encouraged this group to change their reaction to failure.

Most of us fail inward – meaning, our bodies tense up, we get smaller and we let the world know that we are ashamed.

Improvisers practice what same may see as a silly exercise called the “Failure Bow” – we turn failure from an inward defeat to an outward celebration. This small practice helps us act the way we want to feel.

Seth Godin speaks brilliantly about failure, here in this interview. Some of the highlights:

  • those who fail more often, win – The people who don’t win are the ones that don’t fail at all and get stuck, or the ones that fail so big that they don’t get to play again.
  • What are the risks that you can take that keep you in the game even if you fail?
  •  Following the rules can lead to a fear of initiation and a fear of failure. Where can you work where failing is part of the rules?

The concept of embracing failure is broad and confusing for some – depending on your profession, and your past experience. This concept is also juicy and full of connection to vulnerability, innovation, creativity, you name it.

Simply put…error recovery builds resilience, it provides a new kind of reward…perhaps one that we aren’t teaching or recognizing enough.

 

Why Our Brains are Hooked on Being Right – via HBR

I’m preparing for my “Summer O’ Conflict”, which basically means 5 weeks of Conflict Resolution training.

Conflict is fascinating, but as someone who watches and coaches Improvisers I have to say that the choice to start a scene with conflict is all too common. Some know it’s an Improv Pet Peeve of mine –  and I try to get at the root of why this is a common choice for so many of us.

I believe there is something about choosing conflict that keeps us safe. It gives us a problem to solve, but also keeps us from truly connecting and playing in the unknown. We can snap into ‘conflict mode’ quicker than ‘connection mode’.

This article from HBR sheds light on the neurological responses involved in conflict:

“In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him).”

More More More…

Further more, when we argue, and we win, we want to keep winning and keep arguing.

“That’s partly due to another neurochemical process. When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.”

We run the risk of conflict not only being a choice, but a habit…one that we are neurologically rewarded for doing well in.

When Improvisers introduce conflict just for the sake of having something to do on stage, I stop and ask them to tell me what the conflict is really about. Often times they don’t know.

From competition to conversation

Improv is a team sport, just like so many businesses. Similarly, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be productive and important.

What worries me is the instinctual choice to fight instead of doing the harder work…listening.

If we can view conflict as a conversation instead of a competition, remove the idea of winner versus loser, right versus wrong and instead push towards agreement and the notion of being changed by the other person, then I’m more interested in your dynamics, and your scene. Our brains would like that too:

“Luckily, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal as a leader should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding (at least in the context of communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.”