How to listen like an Improviser

Think about your favorite scene from a movie, television show, or a play. If you will, think of a scene free of visual effects and one that just focuses on the people in the story.

Why is it your favorite scene?

If you are like me, favorite scenes emerge because the characters were changed by what someone else said.

When I coach Improvisation teams, I stress the importance of focusing on the relationship between the characters, above all else. The advice can be somewhat vague so I ask students to take it one step further. I ask them to:

“Be changed by what your partner said”.  “Be changed by what you hear”.

Humans find change to be fascinating, even if we go out of our way to avoid it ourselves. I’d argue that we want and root for change when we watch our favorite shows or movies. It is that evolution of a character, and their ability to be changed by what they hear that keeps the character growing and learning, but also quite vulnerable.

The ability to let ourselves be changed by a conversation or an encounter is the key to listening like an improviser. It takes us a step beyond head nods and eye contact, and connects us more deeply to our scene partner because they know they’ve been heard.


What’s the drill – July 20: Fifteen seconds to better listening

15 seconds to better listening – can it be true?

Today I want to share some great active listening tips from Applied Improvisation pioneer, the training firm “Performance of a Lifetime”.

As Improvisers our focus in a scene is on the other person. The tools in our toolbox teach us how to make our partner, colleague, audience member, etc look good.

In helping others to add to their communications toolbox, that same focus on the other person remains very strong.

Here are some listening tips to help you focus on making your partner look good:

1. Listening is not a transaction — it’s our job to listen actively with the intent to build on and co-create a conversation. We can only “yes, and” what our partner says if we are completely focused on what they are saying, without pre-planning our next sentence.

2. Let your partner know they’ve been heard – use re-incorporation, use their words, and the phrase, “what I heard you say is”, to increase empathy, connection and trust between you and your conversation partner. Work with what you heard, not what you wanted to hear. Doesn’t it feel great to know you’ve really been listened to?

3. Give them the space – in this case, we’re talking about 15 seconds. Wait 15 seconds to respond after your partner speaks. Practice this enough and it will become a habit. What did you notice? Can you try this in an especially heated, or crucial conversation?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor E. Frankl

Read the whole article here:



What’s the drill – June 14: Five questions to get you listening differently

Listen up (said with a friendly, have a comfy seat tone!)… here are five questions to get you thinking about HOW you listen.

To me, active listening means more than paying attention. What we choose to pay attention to when we listen is just as important.

1. Are you listening for potential? If not – what is it you are listening for?

2. Are you planning your response while the other person is still talking?

3. Are you listening with more than just your ears – are you paying attention to non-verbal communication?

4. When someone is talking about something they are really passionate about, or feel strongly towards – how can you listen for more than just the facts – listen in a way that focuses on their values, and what matters to them. What does this person care about, and how can you help? After all, it feels wonderful to know that someone understands you.

5. How can you listen with a focus on the future, instead of hanging onto the past?



TOOL: Delight and engage your audience with reincorporation

Improvisation as a communication tool can be broken down into two steps:

Listen, then react.


Without being able to plan ahead in the conversation or the scene, Improvisers are skilled at being present and in the moment, fine-tuning their listening skills to yield honest reactions that keep moving the story and conversation forward.

Skilled Improvisers are also excellent at re-incorporation, or “the call-back” as it’s coined in the comedy world.

Reincorporating a piece of information, a line of dialogue or a small moment from earlier in the scene or story usually results in a big laugh. Reincorporation is a favorite of Improv audiences because they are amazed we remembered such details, and what is familiar usually get a laugh.

Without superb listening and awareness skills, reincorporation wouldn’t be possible.

But, reincorporation can delight more than just Improv audiences. 

Its applications stretch from presentation skills to interviews, praise, and building connections with everyday conversations.

Reincorporation really just means we’ve been listening, and it always feels nice to know you’ve been listened to. It shows that you care, and you are paying attention – imagine the delight and surprise when a small piece of information is reincorporated in an improvised story, perhaps an hour after it was first introduced. Reincorporating an idea, or an employee concern, or praise of a job well done can have the same effect.

Specificity plays a role here too. The more detailed the reincorporation, the bigger the reaction and delight you are creating.

As a presentation tool, reincorporation helps with retention, learning, and information summary. Repeating key points or key themes  in a presentation is a strategic tool.

Listen, then react… with an emphasis on the listening.