The power of re-framing

Ask someone if they want to learn how to be an Improviser and you may not see too many hands get raised. It is down-right scary for many people and we can spend a lot of time de-bunking the myth of what Improv is or is not.

Ask someone if they want to learn how to think on their feet, communicate more effectively, and heighten their listening skills and chances are their reaction will change. Hands go up because the connection to every-day life is more tangible.

Sometimes, we need to re-frame our question.

If we focus too much on Improv, it’s common for feedback from sessions to land in the Level-1 reaction stage, “it was fun”… etc. Fun is great, but the stronger path towards application and learning transfer is to focus on the result of what these tools can achieve and to practice them right there in the room.

So, what questions are you asking to prompt deeper learning? How are you framing learning initiatives that get to the root of what people will walk away with as opposed to focusing on the tool itself?

On Michael Bay, and finding the problem before the solution

By now you’ve probably had your fill of social media posts about Michael Bay’s, shall we say, “issue” at CES last week. Allow me just one more viewpoint.

In the days that followed the “issue”, many people noted Bay’s seeming inability to Improvise. And, friends reached out to me to say much of the same and to suggest he take an Improv class so this sort of thing wouldn’t happen again.

Not so fast. 

While I would love it if Michael Bay took an Improv class, I paused at their reaction.

Instinctively it might seem as though Michael Bay doesn’t know how to Improvise and that learning how to would solve the problem.

The same suggestion could be made for other skills like Mindfulness, for example. We could pitch a myriad of solutions to him. But we can’t be sure they will actually help.

We can’t pitch a solution without first finding the problem.  

My knee-jerk assumption used to also be, “Improv will fix this”. But I’ve learned to check some of those assumptions at the door.

As learning and organizational development professionals we need to understand and find the underlying problem, and not just treat the symptom.

A symptom of the larger problem in this particular case might be that Bay can’t Improvise. But, what’s the problem? We can’t be so sure without testing some assumptions and asking more questions.

By not doing so, and simply solving for the symptoms and not the larger issue we’re stopping short of what this work is capable of.

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.

How to “Yes, And” by saying “No”

When I first started Improvising, I took the phrase “Yes, and” very literally. My mind was blown by this new concept and I wanted to play with the idea of saying YES to everything I could.

And so… I went skiing. I really dislike skiing. Those darn chair lifts! As the chair lift wobbled and swayed in the cold and my kind friends distracted me from my fear by talking baseball and “Friends” trivia, the phrase “Say, Yes And” pierced through my head.

I thought, I really should say YES…when in my gut I knew I wanted to have said no.

This “Yes, And” experiment lasted a few more months. Until I realized a key distinction:

It’s more important to “Yes, And” your instincts than to say yes to everything.

Well-timed NO’s are strategic. They allow us to create space for more YES’s. 

Improv helps us develop our instinctual muscle, so that we are attuned to what feels true for us and what doesn’t.

This attunement also helps us feel what’s true or not true for the characters we play on stage. We know what makes them tick.

Most of us work-out our NO muscle more often than our YES muscle. Usually there is a reason for it. Ask, where is the NO coming from? As long as the “NO” comes from a real, honest place we are still supporting our partner, ourselves, and the scene.

The key is to not feel like we have to say YES to everything our partner says or does on-stage, but to still find a way to accept it and build on it.

A tricky nuance perhaps. I’d argue that the key is balance — How does your “NO” keep moving the story forward? What about this offer can you still accept?

The more we Improvise (on stage and in real life) the more we may realize that “Yes, And’ing” is less about rules and more about intention and instinct.

The power of a “Power Pose”

How much space do you take up? No, we’re not talking about oxygen or your belongings. Literally, when you stand or sit, or enter a room, how much space do you take up and how do you convey that to others?

This is one of the tenants of “Status” – a tool Improvisers use to communicate, influence, empathize, and… play. Status is present in our every day lives and asks us to consider how we act, talk, and feel along a continuum of submission to dominance.

We can choose our status. It is ever in flux. Choosing our status can help us gain the confidence to own the stage.

Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School does a wonderful job of teaching us how to play with status, how being more mindful of status and body language helps shift us neurologically to act the way we want to feel.

Want to learn how? 

Or watch her TED talk, here.

A power pose is one way. What else triggers you and helps you act the way you want to feel?

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.”

 

I Have a Great Idea – via Harvard Business Review

Bear with me for a couple hundred words, can you? I have a “great idea”.

There is an HBR Article floating around that got me fired up. Really fired up.

It was sent over by my friend Phil O’ Brien of Climbing Fish.

The article, written by Umair Haque, argues that the rise of “TED-style thinking” is one cause for our broken relationship with great ideas. He argues that the rise of bite-sized, easily digestible, talks, blogs, learning opportunities are…easy solutions. Here:

We’ve come to look at these quick, easy “solutions” as the very point of “ideas worth spreading. But this seems to me to miss the point and power of ideas entirely. Einstein’s great equation is not a “solution”; it is a theory — whose explanations unravel only greater mysteries and questions. It offers no immediate easy, quick “application” in the “real world,” but challenges us to reimagine what the “real world” is; it is a Great Idea because it offers us something bigger, more lasting, and more vital than a painless, disposable “solution.”

It’s true – audiences (especially adult audiences) want to know: how can I utilize this information now, how is this relevant to me, and what is the ANSWER?! I’ve seen it in the workshops I teach, the consultants I work with, and in my own experience.

I am not unlike the audiences of today. As I sit through each Graduate school class in my Master’s program I find myself struggling with classes that don’t provide immediate utility, relevance and answers. I worry about the cost, both opportunity and financial.

But what Haque is arguing, is for these learning experiences to encourage more questions than answers. To give us space to reflect and the time to transform these great ideas into more great ideas of our own. The learning I receive in graduate school makes me uncomfortable, far more than I’d argue a TED talk ever could. It is me at my most vulnerable self.

Why? It’s because I’m not given the simple, quick solution and immediate utility. But, I have the space to ruminate on it, share with my learning community and make the process relevant and meaningful for myself.

It’s a hard lesson to learn – especially when you are impatient, passionate, excited, and anxious.

“That is precisely how Great Ideas change us: not merely by pleasing us, but by challenging us. That is precisely how they elevate us: not merely by pandering to us, or by provoking us, but by enlightening the whole of us. That is precisely what makes Great Ideas truly worthy — not just easily palatable, and commercially profitable.”

I think of this often as I design and deliver corporate workshops and engage in many others. I remember that when I was first learning how to Improvise (which, I consider the “Great Idea” that changed my life), it wasn’t boiled down into one class or one 18-minute talk. Improv teaches you there is no right answer, or one solution. Sure, it’s also relevant and applicable, but not just in one clear way.

This “Great Idea” keeps me constantly off-center. This sort of learning helps a person truly come into their own, the learning isn’t spoon-fed, it’s up to them to grab the spoon. And, it’s stuck with me longer than any TED Talk, blog post, article ever could. It didn’t just spew knowledge, it fueled reflection and a desire for more experience.

Not all great ideas are intended for the masses or for digestible consumption, but that also means the ideas don’t have to be perfect or fully-formed to start to spread.

Learning is personal. Learning is meaningful. Learning is powerful. How can we as educators help keep this alive with the boundaries that technology, time, money, have set? I want to hear your great ideas.

What’s the drill – February 22: Know your objective

‎”Whenever someone comes to me for help, I listen very hard and ask myself, ‘What does this person really want? And what will they do to keep from getting it?” – William Perry, Harvard Professor of Education

Navigating life without a script means finding the balance between freedom and structure. For Improvisers, it means getting clear on the basics of the scene, feeling grounded in the structure so that we can move and build new ideas with complete freedom.

A trick we use to keep us centered, motivated, and able to navigate ambiguity is to know our objective in the scene. What is it that my character wants, and why?

Once we get clear on these answers, a scene can really flow.

But, how often do we go into a scene, a meeting, a phone call, a class, an opportunity and truly know what our objective is?

Getting clear on our objective does more than just help you – it helps your partner in crime. If I don’t know what it is you want, how can I support you?

For me, the most memorable Improv scenes to watch and to play in are those where characters have a clear objective that comes from a very truthful, sometimes vulnerable place. For example, they don’t just want to win the science fair, but they want someone to tell them how great they are… for the very first time.

Having a clear objective is a way to measure change. Did we get what we wanted? Did it mean something to us? What’s my temperature reading before and after? How am I progressing?

When I’m coaching Improvisers or those in a professional development setting, it’s common for people to either not have an objective or to not verbalize it.

We can’t always think of the objective spontaneously, but we can tune into the character, or ourselves to think about what is it that I really want? Sometimes it takes some work, and some encouragement:

  1. Know the “why”, not only the “what” – figure out why your objective matters to you. Sometimes asking “The Five Why’s” can help with this. 
  2. Be open to your objective changing. Don’t hold so fast to it that you close yourself off.
  3. Finally – don’t be afraid to ask for help.