How many times have we been given the advice or told ourselves that we just need to “go with it”. How often do we actually put that into practice? Until…

I walked into an improv class

It was my first improv experience. I decided to try a class based on the recommendation of a friend and colleague.  Five minutes into the first exercise I thought it was going to be my first and only improv encounter.  

The class began with all of us gathered in a circle with the instructor saying, “I was walking on the beach last Sunday and…” She then pointed to one of us. Our task was to add to the story, beginning with the familiar improv refrain “yes and..”, building on what was said previously until everyone had a turn.  (Think of an offer by another person and you accepting – the improv “contract”).The story got fanciful pretty quickly and soon pink elephants were sunbathing on the beach!

I found myself getting impatient and figuratively rolling my eyes (fortunately, I didn’t actually do it). The whole exercise seemed like a silly, stochastic and pointless process. I wanted to jump in and amend the rules so that each successive phrase built on the previous one in a way that was more realistic and not such a waste of time. I wanted to create more structured rules for the game.

Wait. What? This is an improv class. I realized the problem wasn’t the class. Why should I make the rules and dictate the story someone else tells? The entire point of the exercise is to let that go. This was one of those moments for me.  I understood in a very tangible way that: 1) we can’t control every situation and what others say, 2) once someone says something it’s out there and can’t be unsaid, and most important, 3) the next step is to decide what to do with it. 

Getting frustrated with the person or the process may be the natural reaction, though we have all had experiences where focussing on frustration generally doesn’t move things forward. As I stood there waiting for my turn, I asked myself what if I settled into the process instead of fighting it? Here was my chance to build on the conversation as long as I could stop the eye roll and let go of the frustration.

Only a game? Although this was only an exercise, it allowed me to see something I had not previously internalized. This was the start of what I call “building the improv muscle”.

What if we are in a critical conversation and someone says something to derail it? It isn’t always the best option to leave when an important discussion takes an odd or unexpected turn. In that next moment is the opportunity to acknowledge, listen and build on the conversation. Having a “Yes and…” mindset doesn’t mean you agree, you may have a different perspective and you are willing to explore solutions with the other person.