Courting centres of influence

Improvisational theatre or “improv” is a popular form of comic theatre that allows actors to flourish in unscripted situations. Among business circles, improv can actually help you refine your management skills.

Toronto’s famous Second City theatre company runs a seven-week introductory improv course centred on professional development for businesspeople. Every session ends with a debrief on how you might apply the exercises in business.

“The skills we introduced to our improv ensemble are the same skills that serve people well in business,” says Kevin Frank, artistic director of Second City Training Centre in Toronto. “We teach [participants] to be open-minded, to listen to everyone’s input and value it the same way without judgment.”

Frank shares four lessons you can learn from improv to enhance your approach to business:

1. Embrace failure
We often have a tendency to self-edit, judge or reject our thoughts and ideas before sharing them with others, Frank says. That is especially true in business, where the fear of failure can cripple creativity.

“Failure gives us the opportunity to examine something from a point we hadn’t considered before,” he says, adding that the first lesson improv drills into participants is to get comfortable and grow from failure.

With improv, participants are trained to let go of hang-ups about appearing silly and sounding unpolished. The less preoccupied you are with other people’s perceptions, the more comfortable you are about offering up your suggestions.

2. Value collaboration
Improv performers are bound by one philosophical commandment: to respond with a statement that begins, “yes, and” — and build on their scene partner’s input.

Instead of dismissing someone’s idea and steering the conversation in a new direction, improv teaches you to reciprocate with your own idea to advance the scene.

You can work to cultivate a “yes, and” environment in your practice, says Frank. The next time you hold a brainstorming session, pick up on the point someone has raised and explore where that thread of the conversation leads.

“You might end up with a unique solution that’s not entirely executable,” Frank says. “But somewhere in there, really good insights come up.”

3. Be more attentive
Much of what people communicate is revealed through their body language. Because improv skits hinge on collaboration, it trains you to “collect” information and also focus on those non-verbal cues, which you might otherwise miss.

In business, the ability to sense how a person may be feeling can help you understand his or her motivations or reservations.

For example, if you notice that a client is less than enthusiastic about your advice, Frank says, broach that situation by asking, “Is there something more to this that I’m missing?”

When you make that effort, you become a better listener and it makes the person feel heard.

4. Express appreciation
Improv practices a culture of “thank you,” says Frank: “You are grateful for anything that your scene partner gives you.”

Sometimes, we neglect to acknowledge the little things that others do for us because it’s expected of them. Frank often reminds participants to show their gratitude for colleagues and team members for their efforts and input — regardless of whether you are in agreement with their take.

For example, if someone is willing to take an unpopular view or bring an issue to your attention, don’t discount it. Thank them and open up the discussion.

“When you feel appreciated,” Frank says, “you contribute more.”

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