How improv is making me a better conversationalist

 

This year I took an improv class. Getting outside of my comfort zone and being forced to react immediately to whatever happens on stage brought a lot of laughs, as well as some serious flops.

For those of you who have never experienced improv, it's basically acting without a script. Actors work together to create stories or situations on stage in that very moment. All this really forces you to think creatively.

I initially decided to take this improv class to become a better storyteller and learn to be more funny. Instead, this class has been an absolute education on thinking less and doing more, being less self-critical, and embracing failure. The most surprising takeaways however, have been what I’ve learned about how to have better conversations.

Improv takes conversation to the next level. Actors are placed on stage and expected to interact with each other with no memorized lines, and often no previously established roles. The result is a hyper-dependence on each other, listening and reacting, supporting and building. Incredible trust is built and a story arises out of nothing. These interactions have reminded me of the conversations I strive to have, but I’ve had to work through some false assumptions.

Don’t try so hard to be entertaining

When I initially started improv I had this self-imposed expectation to be funny, that every statement needed to be profound. As a result I tended to do ridiculous things to be funny or at the other extreme to not speak at all to avoid failing. What we were eventually taught in the class is that humor is logical. The goal of improv is for the audience to say “that’s what I would have said!”, to see the thought progression through your words. When people are too flamboyant or exaggerated the scene gets out of hand. A little craziness can be good, but what's really funny is when ideas are brought together in a way that makes sense to the audience. Ironically, by not trying so hard to be funny, I became more funny.

Our conversations are similar - sometimes we just try too hard, or disqualify ourselves and don’t try at all because we're afraid of failure. The goal is connection in conversation, to relate to one another, not extend ourselves beyond who we truly are or the way we truly think. Allow for natural progression. Humor and connection happen as we live our stories. It builds on whatever situation we are in, and doesn’t need to be manufactured.

Don’t put down possibilities

Just as we should speak freely, it’s important to encourage possibilities. In improv, scenes are built when an opportunity is presented and acted upon. Whether that is a chance meeting of a talking beaver on the street, a man who has just arrived from Mars, or a set of magic beans. Each of these ridiculous situations adds to a story. Sometimes there is a tendency, however, for the actor to deny the circumstances of the scene. Actors may say 'Beavers don’t talk,' 'no one has ever been to Mars,' or 'magic beans aren’t real.' These reality checks are an improvisers wet blanket. They deny innovation and kill the story. Similarly, friends can come to us with excitement and possibility, but we don’t support their innovation or energy.

Our life stories are built in possibility. Last minute road trips, dinner with a group of people you don’t know, or a new idea that you don’t understand yet. There may be some initial awkwardness, but life lives in such uncertainty. Encourage the unknown and consider how something can work instead of why it can’t.

Be willing to be present

While doing improv, our class’s initial tendency was to always be leaving and traveling beyond the current scene. For instance, one night as a scene progressed we went from the forest, to a city, to Europe. The ridiculousness of our travels that night highlighted for me the tendency we all have to be ‘somewhere else.’ We did not embrace all of the possibilities of the forest, and instead felt that we should leave, then leave again. Instead, entire scenes can take place in a single room and have incredible drama. One of my favorite movies, ‘12 Angry Men’, takes place in a single jury room. Yet the drama when those individuals are forced to interact in a confined space is palpable.

With friends or conversation there are the same themes. It’s easy to have shallow conversations or relationships before going onto the next. It’s hard to be fully present in a conversation and fully explore the possibilities of the person standing in front of you. This tendency to be elsewhere can be felt in conversation. We’ve all recognized when the person in front of us wants to be elsewhere, or is not giving full attention. Instead, we need to realize that there is a story to be lived in the current moment, with whomever we are with.

Extreme listening

I was surprised how central listening is to improv. All actors on stage have no script. There is no planning in advance about what to say. As a result, the entire scene is built off of what the other person says. Our tendency is to think ahead to what we are going to say next because we're afraid we won't have anything to say. But counter-intuitively, it's listening that gives us what we need to say. Your job as an improviser is to listen carefully and react accordingly. The audience is listening closely, forcing you to be that much more attentive. Your job is to listen carefully and follow the energy of the situation and interaction to build the situation.

In conversation this energy and situational awareness are just as important - your conversation is a live interaction, with unknown outcomes. Listening carefully and reacting accordingly is key. When we don’t listen we won’t be able to react genuinely. How we respond demonstrates our level of listening. Once you have listened you are able to take whatever is said and incorporate into your life and into the conversation.

Speak before you know what to say

In improv I felt like I had to have the perfect words, which limited my contributions. In reality I found that my immediate, messy contributions helped and inspired others to contribute. Turns out improv is about unfiltered contributions to a conversation. Improv is not calculated. It is reactionary. It is messy. Humor lives in unrestrained commentary.

When we wait to share our voice until we have a perfectly crafted message the opportunity to influence the discussion and to add to the overall benefit of others may pass by. We need to share whatever message comes to our mind, which adds to the conversation and allows others to receive it with the support mentioned earlier. Our tendency may be to manage our image or to calculate our words. Instead feel free to share your thoughts, and allow others to do the same.

 

We are all Improvisers

Improv, like conversation, is not a monologue. It is iterative, and takes multiple people to succeed. Unlike acting or stand up comedy, improv doesn't have lead roles and supporting roles. There isn't a ‘star’. Instead there are multiple people acting like a team. Setting each other up to make them look good. Successful conversations operate the same way - all parties have something to contribute.

You may not think of yourself as an improviser. But when we enter a conversation everyone of us begins improvising: listening, reacting to what is being said, trying to add to the unscripted overall ‘scene’. The result can be something entertaining and something dramatic. But at the very least, good improv and good conversation result in producing something meaningful to all parties involved.