It Really Works…Using Improvisation Skills to Improve Collaboration and Listening

by Angie Flynn-McIver

What does “improvisation” make you think of? Sketch comedy? A college roommate who brought you along to watch her late-night improv show? An awkward company retreat (“trust fall,” anyone?)

When we refer to “improvisation,” all we really mean is unplanned interaction—no script. Almost every conversation you have is improvised, right? You don’t walk around with a piece of paper or a teleprompter that tells you what to say next. Instead, you rely on unspoken guidelines of communication and conversation to help you navigate the various interactions in your daily life.

Improvisation is a powerful tool—and not just in theater. Nothing shines a spotlight on its potential better than actually experiencing the new ways it helps us engage with others. It makes us open up and listen more actively, becoming more aware of nonverbal signals.

How does this work? Why on earth would this matter outside of a theater setting? At Flynn Heath Holt, we use a variety of techniques and approaches that help our clients grow, collaborate, and develop into the best leaders possible. In these workshops, participants see how improvisation skills break down barriers and build better teams. Through a specially designed program of exercises, they discover how abandoning old scripts and assumptions often leads to unexpected rewards.  And they laugh. A lot.

In the interviews we did when we designed this improv workshop, we heard the same things over and over again: “I’m a terrible listener.” “My team has got to be better at reading the room.” “We are so busy getting through our agenda that we don’t let other people contribute.”

Consider, for example, a manager who has scheduled a meeting with several people whose support she needs for a big project. As soon as everyone arrives, she launches into her agenda and outlines what needs to happen next. She glances briefly around the table as she speaks, and then asks, “Any questions?” Hearing none, she thanks everyone and walks back out the door.

She thinks the meeting went well because no one had questions. What she doesn’t realize is she never created any opportunities for others to speak up. Because she barely looked up from her notes, she didn’t see the glances others were exchanging as she spoke. Nothing about her presentation—including her body language—suggested she actually wanted or expected any questions or comments.

If she had attended our workshop, she’d know how to consciously and deliberately create an atmosphere of listening and collaboration. And not only would she have gotten questions, she’d have been offered some great ideas for improving the project.  Instead, she followed a script that cancelled out all other voices.

Great inventions often start as improvisations. And so do great collaborations.  No scripts can capture the opportunities hidden in each moment. But we can, if we use improv to find them.

Try it yourself: The basic premise of improvisation is “Yes, and.”  The idea is to accept what someone else offers and build on it instead of putting forward your own idea. The next time you’re in a meeting or conversation and you want to respond “yes, but,” or “no, but” to a suggestion, try “yes, and” instead, and see what happens! (Warning: this may be harder than it seems!)