When Life Imitates Art… What We Can Learn
In January of 2015, while attending a WZ company-wide team building collaboration workshop, I had the pleasure of meeting Diana Martinez, the CEO and founder of Spark Creative Consulting.
Prior to founding Spark, Diana had been the President and CEO of The Second City. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about The Second City until I moved to Chicago. I quickly learned, however, that many famous actors and comedians, including Bill Murray, John Candy, Tina Fey and many others from Saturday Night Live, cut their teeth at that Chicago fixture, which has become one of the most influential and prolific comedy theatres in the world .
During our training, Diana used a technique called “improv” to teach us how to communicate (and collaborate) better in the workplace. Improv, or improvisational comedy as it is formally known, is a performance style wherein nearly everything that happens is being created at that very moment, with no predetermined script (Whose Line Is It Anyway).
Like anything else, however, improv has rules, and if these rules aren’t followed, the scene will go very bad very quickly. What I found most compelling was that the necessary components for a good scene in improv are the same qualities required to succeed in life, in business, and in conducting workplace interviews.
Life can’t be planned. We know that. But by following these few simple rules, it can go much more smoothly.
Rule #1 – “Yes, And…”
On stage, “Yes, and…” means that you agree with the reality that your improv scene partner has created, and you then add to that reality. This, in fact, is the very foundation of improv. If my scene partner says, for example, “the sun looks brighter here on the moon,” I first agree to the reality that he or she created, and then I add to it. What I add, however, must logically flow from what my partner said. I could do this by saying, “Yes, and what could be more romantic for our anniversary?” In contrast, the scene wouldn’t work if I said, “We’re on Earth, not the moon.” There is no logical flow.
In real life, we can use “Yes, and…” to validate another person’s point of view. It is important to make the distinction, however, that “Yes, and…” is not about simply agreeing with everything that the other person says. Rather, it is about ensuring that the other person truly feels that he or she is being heard. This is one of the keys to dynamic, honest and meaningful communication.
In business, when we use “Yes, and…”, we are providing an opportunity for every idea to be considered and to have the chance to be acted upon. When individuals are not repressed by the fear of hearing “no” or “yes, but…”, we create a much safer atmosphere for them to be open and honest when they finally summon the courage to share their thoughts and ideas. This also fosters an environment of trust, which, when combined with honesty and communication, creates an atmosphere most conducive to effective business dealings.
In workplace interviews, we employ the “Yes, and…” technique when we acknowledge the reality of the subject. If someone tells us, for example, that they would never steal from the company because they wouldn’t want to lose their job, we first acknowledge that fear (the “Yes”) and then maybe say “and don’t you think if the company wanted to make that decision they could have done that already?” (the “and…”) In other words, we begin by acknowledging and agreeing with their reality, and then we help them overcome their fears by showing empathy and understanding. This, more often than not, leads to the interviewee feeling more comfortable and, as a result, sharing more information.
Rule #2 – Authenticity
On stage, if you’re authentic, you will get laughs. It’s that simple. On the first day of Level C my instructor, Mark Czoske, wanted to prove to us that if we were real, we would be funny. He gave us a situation and we had to play ourselves – and we had to be 100% honest! For my scene, Mark said, “Angela, you’re alone in an empty movie theatre, and Matt comes in and sits in the seat next to you. Play it how you would really respond.” I did exactly that, and Mark was right. I got laughs.
In real life, of course, being genuine will get you much farther than being the funniest or smartest person in the room. We are comfortable with and enjoy being around people who are authentic and connect with us, instead of showing off. Others, in turn, will be more comfortable with us if we are deemed genuine and true to ourselves.
In business, when interacting with someone who hides behind their company persona, or speaks only in company quotes, they can come across as disconnecting and off-putting. Everyone likely knows that that persona is not real, and, as a result, they likely do not fully trust the person, since they feel that they do not really know the true person behind the persona. Again, trust, honesty and communication are key to effective business dealings – displaying true genuineness and authenticity is the easiest way to achieve that goal.
In workplace interviews, when we empathize with an interviewee by sharing a story about when we faced a similar obstacle, it is usually pretty obvious when it’s a true story because the emotion is authentic. Authenticity shows – it’s natural. Similarly, when conducting an interview, we should look for that same natural behavior. When an interviewee offers a made up rationalization to explain his or her behavior, it is not authentic. It is much like watching a shoplifter on a camera try to act normal in a store. Actual shoppers don’t have to act normal, they just are normal.
Rule #3 – Ensemble
On stage, a group of actors is called an ensemble. An ensemble is not a team. A team competes. Ensembles don’t compete with one another. Everything is for the good of the group, not for an individual. I was taught: “If you don’t know what to say or do, just make your scene partner look good.”
In real life, people who neglect or mistreat others in order to get ahead are not respected. The more support we give to and receive from others, the more successful and happy we are. An ensemble creates an atmosphere of trust where it’s safe to lean on others.
In business, the most effective work groups are made up of a variety of personality types, experiences, and strengths. This is true diversity. ”Stars” can emerge out of high functioning ensembles when all members eliminate the need to be right, the need to steal focus, or the need to control others. It is wonderful when we are fortunate enough to be in an environment where the group’s goals trump the individual’s and where there’s enough credit and recognition for all.
In workplace interviews, we always go in with a carefully constructed game plan. We should not, however, be afraid to ask our colleagues for support. It is okay to share our game plan with others, and to ask for (and be open to) suggestions and feedback. Addressing the simple mistakes before we go into the interview room can completely change the outcome of the conversation – and perhaps the entire investigation.
Rule #4 – Be in the Moment
On stage, actors must listen and be present in the moment. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. It creates awareness when we aren’t worried about what we are going to say next. If an actor’s attention is on the next thing they say, they aren’t listening, and, as a result, they risk responding with something that makes no sense. This kills the scene. Actors don’t always realize when this happens on stage because they’re “in it,” but the audience sees it and it can be awkward and embarrassing.
In real life, so many problems arise through miscommunication. Miscommunication does not always occur simply because someone fails to express himself or herself clearly. A critical element of effective communication is active listening. So much information is conveyed that can only be properly received as a result of active listening – hearing what is said as well as what is not said. Communication is the key to trust. Trust is the key to relationships.
In business, honing one’s expertise in the art of active listening is a priority for anyone who wants to create, communicate, lead, or manage effectively. The ability to extract what someone is saying – or inferring – is one of the most important qualities of any effective leader. Active listening takes work and requires awareness around the tendency to jump right into a solution. Leaders that check for understanding help the subordinate who may not feel comfortable challenging, especially if that leader get defensive easily. When people feel heard, they trust you more.
In interviews, it is critical to really listen carefully and actively when the subject speaks. For example, “What’s going to happen to the person that did this?” may really mean “What’s going to happen to me or to someone I care about?” While interview outlines are important and necessary to ensure that all key areas of inquiry are addressed, it is more critical to stop planning the next question you are going to ask and listen carefully to the answers you are being given by person in front of you. Make eye contact. Pay attention. Sit up straight. These seemingly small details take you out of your head and signal to the interviewee that you care about them and that you are really listening to them. Oh, and put away the cell phone!
Rule #5 – Imperfection
On stage, improv actors know that failure is certain. They commit to it every time they walk on stage. A common mistake on stage is calling someone the wrong name. One actor may call their scene partner “Darren” after a different scene partner just called him “George.” A great ensemble member finds a way to turn the failure around and pull some positivity out of i. They may respond, for example, by saying: “I see we’re using our middle names again.”
In real life, while we may not always see it this way, mistakes are simply gifts to to teach us that there is more than one right answer. We can find a lesson in every error.
In business, the biggest threat to creativity is fear – especially fear of failure. Business environments that ease fear encourage the freedom of creativity. With risk, there will inevitably be failures. Without risk, there will never be success. Risk should be encouraged and failure should not be punished.
In workplace interviews, we never come across individuals who are willing to freely admit that they did something wrong. It’s hard – and against human nature – to admit when we made a mistake – or worse. I get that. It wasn’t easy for me to sit in a room with some of the best interviewers in the industry and critically analyze my own interview videos. I was exposed, and I felt it. If you are a seasoned investigator, don’t forget how vulnerable and sometimes terrifying it can feel to be an amateur.
The bottom line: Improv changes people because it changes the brain. Every time we face our fears we change our neural pathways, and change ourselves. I took improv classes at The Second City because I wanted to have fun. I wasn’t expecting that decision to change the course of my professional development. But then again, if you never take risks….
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