The rules of improv aren’t just for comedy scenes on a stage. They’re a great guide for moving ideas forward and creating an environment that fosters listening, respect and innovation. As Robert Kulhane of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business said, “Improvisation isn’t about comedy, it’s about reacting — being focused and present in the moment at a very high level.”
My favorite set of improv rules (in the headlines below) are from Tina Fey in her book BossyPants. Because if there’s anyone who knows comedy – and business – it’s her.
The first rule of improve is to agree. Saying yes doesn’t mean you’re ready to go forward with an idea. It simply means that you’re ready to engage with the other person. It’s easy to default to a “no.” No is safer because it means taking fewer risks. But even if you’re thinking no, say yes. “No” is hard to respond to. “No, we’re too busy.” “No, it’s not in the budget.” Those statements put people on the defensive and make it hard to have a meaningful conversation.
By saying yes, you’re telling the other person that you respect them and their thought process. It means going into a conversation with your mind open to new possibilities and innovation. It also makes people more comfortable approaching you with their ideas and collaborations.
“When you’re the person saying yes to other people, they start to bring you their best ideas,” says Ed Herbstman, an improv teacher at the Magnet Theater. “When you’re meeting things habitually with ‘yes, and,’ with an energy of agreement, you transform the way people perceive you.”
Saying “yes” is a beginning, but it isn’t enough. Instead, try some version of, “Yes, and…” In other words, after you’ve established that you’re engaged with the idea, add something of your own. First, this tells the other person that you’re listening. If you’re going to add something to the idea, you have to have heard it – really heard it – before you can.
Second, “yes and” affirms the value of the conversation. You’re saying, “Let’s think about this together and see where it goes.” Letting the other person know you’re engaged and willing to have a deeper conversation always yields a good outcome, whether it’s feelings of good will or the solution to a vexing problem.
Make statements instead of barraging people with questions. This takes pressure off other people to have all the answers and gives you the opportunity to be a full contributor to the thought process. Whether you’re with 2 or 20 people, sharing your thoughts gives everyone more to work with and build on. And the more everyone actively listens and contributes, the higher the likelihood that the conversation will yield a productive outcome.
The other benefit of making statements is that it stops you from asking permission for your ideas. And that puts you in a position of leadership. When you’re sharing in a dynamic conversation, you assure that you’re not just listening to what other people have to say, but that you’re being heard as well.
There are no mistakes
When you engage with people this way, there are no mistakes. By approaching ideas not as finite ends with simple yes or no answers, but as openings, even things that don’t turn out as expected will create new opportunities and challenges.
Using the rules of improv helps us break out of our long established patterns and can lead to more creative problem solving and more openness to others. And that’s a skill you can use across all workplaces, whether you’re dealing with your boss, you co-worker, or a client.