Yes, and… Five Rules of Improv Help in Work and Play

I used to get a knot in my stomach on Monday afternoons as I anticipated that evening’s comedy improv class about nine years ago. I wanted to be in the class and loved performing in the shows at the Comedy Dojo in Scranton (when people laughed at what I did on stage) but I was still a ball or nerves before class. I was doing the exact opposite of what improv represents. I was not being in the moment. I was worrying ahead of time about what I would say and do, what interesting choices I would make that night in class. But to quote my instructor at the time, Chris Barnes, (and I believe he was quoting someone else when he said this) “You have to walk through the fire to get to the cooling water.”

No matter if it’s an improv class or some other activity or event that takes us outside of our comfort zones, we need to get through the pain, discomfort, difficult stuff to get to the other side where we get to feel cool, calm, relaxed, even proud and let out an “ahhhhhh.”

As I prepare to present a workshop at a conference for administrative professionals using improvisation to address communication, conflict resolution and collaboration, I’m reminded of the valuable lessons the rules of improv can teach all of us… for life.

  • Yes, and… is the one unbreakable rule in improvisation. It means that we say “yes” to what our fellow actor has given us. We accept their words as a gift or treasure and we add “and,” which shows our commitment to contribute something just as valuable that will help us move forward.  Consider saying “Yes” in life more often. Imagine the possibilities. Too many times we disagree with ideas and just say “No.” Or, we want to appear agreeable so we say “Yes, but…” which is basically saying, “I hear what you’re saying but my way is better.”  So the next time your coworker asks “Are you looking forward to that meeting?” Instead of rolling your eyes and saying “No,” try smiling instead and say, “Yes, and I think I’ll suggest we start the meeting by each sharing something fun we did this weekend so we can start on a happy note.”
  • Make unusual or unexpected choices. This improv guideline isn’t something you can apply to every part of life. Attempting to pay your bills with magic beans is not likely to work but there are many instances in which you – and people around you – can benefit from a choice that is different from the status quo. Instead of complaining that it’s Monday and you’d rather be in your garden or on the golf course, CHOOSE to be happy that you are working and doing something that not only affects people’s lives but also allows you to buy that new driver you’ve been scoping out online.  Or, instead of putting in your headphones at your desk so you can tune out your loud, gossiping coworker in the cubicle next to you, listen! Maybe you can learn something that will help you improve your relationship. Take an opportunity to engage her in conversation about a movie, new local restaurant or any topic other than the number of different cars she sees in her neighbor’s driveway on the weekend.
  • Be in the moment. This popular advice is key to the success of improv performers on stage because the scene they create for their audience is so much more interesting when it happens right there and doesn’t reference a past that the audience cannot see or a future that has yet to unfold. Search through any list of self-help books and this theme appears. Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” effectively addresses the value and absolute necessity of living our lives in the present. It boggles my mind how simple an idea this is but one that eludes so many of us. It just makes sense that we can only live in the present moment but I can’t tell you how often I live in the past as thoughts in my head (usually negative) race around as if on a track like horses trying to win the Triple Crown. All those hooves galloping kick up quite a bit of mud. I am far, far away from mastering the concept of being in the moment. It takes effort to make sure you are in the moment. Practice it. If you’re like me, you can read a magazine article and not know the full meaning because your mind went somewhere else by the second paragraph. “I have to call to reschedule that doctor’s appointment. I wonder if the new “Orphan Black” is On Demand yet; I want to watch that tonight. Oh crap, I forgot to get gas last night, that means I have to leave the house early today so I’m not late for my meeting.” Practice being in the moment!
  • Show. Don’t Tell. When improv actors create a scene on stage, this is key to believability and much more interesting to the audience if they show activity rather than talk about. For example: Actor A says, “I am not going to walk toward you, place my hands around your neck and pretend to choke you.” Actor B responds, “I’ll stand here and wait for you to do that and as you approach I will bug my eyes out as if I have a look of fear on my face.”  The scene should just happen. If you see it, you will have a much better experience than if you hear about it.  In life this comes in handy when we communicate. Many of us have different communication styles and we may not get someone’s wordy explanation but if they show us how to do something we might have a better time understanding.  And at a higher, loftier, Ghandi-esque level, it’s a good idea to SHOW, not TELL in the manner in which we live our lives. It’s great to teach your children to be honest. It’s good to tell your employees to be productive and do their jobs with integrity but SHOW-ing your children what honesty looks like and SHOW-ing your coworkers what integrity looks like, are much more effective. Ghandi said it simply, “Be the change that y0u wish to see in the world.”
  • Bring something to the party. This is something that improv instructor Barnes used to say to us as we were about to enter a scene. He would remind us that we should bring something to the scene. Yes, it slightly contradicts the idea of not planning what you will do or say in an improv scene but it worked and made sense. He wanted us to think about what we were seeing on stage. What did our fellow actors create already in this scene and what could we bring to it to help it move forward?  When you are hosting a party and everyone brings chips and dip, your menu is going to need help. The next time you enter a room, whether at work or at a social gathering, see what you can add.  Is someone upset, recounting a story about her husband leaving her? Is someone consoling another person who just received bad news from his doctor about cancer? Is someone raising his voice at another person who just offended him?  Your attitude and words can help or hurt the people you are about to engage with. Be aware of other people’s feelings and the situation in front of you and bring something to this party that will help, not hurt or destroy it.

Am I happy that it’s Monday and it’s gray and rain is predicted for tonight when I run a 5K?  Yes, and… I won’t need to wear my sunglasses or worry about getting too hot while I run. The rain will feel refreshing.

Painting Nails, Pillow Fights? No, but We Laugh!

Last weekend I hosted a “big girls” sleepover. And by that I mean an overnight gathering of grown women. That is not a reference to body shape in any weigh, I mean way. Not that size has anything to do with my blog today. It’s about connecting with people who matter to us.

The children of one of my friends teased her that she was going on a “sleep over” at her age. I believe her son even ribbed, “How old are you?” We are women in our 40s who still make time to spend with one another to reminisce about the 26 years we’ve known one another, to talk about our lives today – or at least as much as each of us can get out before the topic swings in another direction- and we laugh!

We didn’t tell secrets, braid each other’s hair or engage in pillow fights (sorry to break the perpetuated stereotype that some guys like to imagine of feathers flying and tickle fights as Jerry Seinfeld indicated in “The Pool Guy” episode of “Seinfeld” in response to Elaine’s comment about doing “girlie stuff”) but we did do some of the same things that young girls do. We shared stories about the “boys” in our lives. We ate junk food. We watched a movie. We stayed up past our bed time (which is probably earlier than many kids these days – kids lead pretty mature lives with all of their extracurricular activities and texting to all hours of the morning). We shared more serious stories about personal health concerns, financial issues and relationship struggles. We connected. That’s what people do. At least that’s what people used to do…more often than we do these days.

I don’t want to sound like the stereotypical crotchety grandpa sitting in a rocking chair telling his grandchildren how in “his” day he walked to school uphill both ways in thread-bare shoes in the snow, but I am developing that “things aren’t how they used to be” mindset. When I went back to school to take my first graduate class at Marywood University in 2000, while working full time, I was required to read “The Naked Sun” by Isaac Asimov. It’s not the type of book I would have selected for myself but I enjoyed it and found it to be relatively easy to read. Although this book was published in 1956, the author had a pretty good vision for what the future would become with technology.  More emotionally disconnected for one.

There’s no doubt that we are now more connected with people around the world but have we lost the deepest connections in our lives? Do we value intimacy with close friends and lovers as much as we did in the past? Or… has that always been an illusion? A fairytale for leather-bound books and movies? I don’t have the answer. But I do know that we need to continue to work hard to stay connected with people who matter to us. A little handheld computer may be able to show you the temperature, time, texts from friends, sports scores and pictures of what your co-worker ate for lunch all on one screen at the same time, but can it do for your heart and soul? Will it ever make you feel alive the way that a hug or kiss can?  The way that holding hands or having your arm caressed can? Can it physically lift your mood the way a booming laugh that fills your stomach and lungs and then bursts out into the air can? I’m sorry but I don’t believe that any app can ever do that!

Let’s stay connected. Let’s laugh today and every day, no matter how many versions we have iEverything!

An apple a day is healthy but laughter throughout your day can be transformational.

An apple a day is healthy but laughter throughout your day can be transformational.