Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why improv is difficult

One of the reasons why improvisational theatre is so difficult is that many of our conversations are just a collection of selfish pronouncements based on our preconceived ideas about reality. Even when we engage in conversations with friends and family, which should be the most non-confrontational discussions we can have, we're most often arguing our own positions on any particular topic.

"Did you hear about Jenny? She's getting a divorce."
"Yeah well, I always knew she should never have married that guy."

"I heard that our property taxes are going up next year."
"Figures. City Hall can't manage the money they have, they always want more."

"Many farmers are reporting that their crops will fail this year because of all this rain."
"See, I told you global warming is a fraud."

When it comes to conversations, sometimes people are just waiting for the other person to finish, so that they can say what they’re waiting to spout to support their own opinion. Some people refer to this type of communication as 'machine-gun monologue'. In these types of conversations, there is very little listening going on - people are just waiting for their turn to talk. Needless to say, very little gets advanced in these types of discussions. Everyone just gets to state their position and even find interesting ways to use contradicting evidence to justify their own beliefs and opinions.

I must admit that I find myself doing this from time to time as well. In my case, it's due to the fact that on occasion I get so excited about speaking that I actually lose patience and can barely wait for the other person to stop talking so that I can get my two cents in. Although I consider myself an open-minded person, it's not conducive to hearing the other person's point of view when all you can think about is "When is it my turn?"

This absolutely does not work in improvisation. If you and I are on stage, I have no idea what you’re going to say next, so I can’t plan ahead with what I'm going to say next. I may be in the habit of planning my next statement, but this will only fall flat on its face, as what you say next will almost always not fit within my planned script. I have to really be listening to you. Only then can I offer an appropriate response.

This lesson can be directly applied to work and life in general. If someone has a solid idea on how to proceed, they are very unlikely to listen to anything that might detract from that idea. We pretend to listen to arguments against the idea, but are we really listening? No we're not. We're just waiting for others to finish so that we can continue to move our own idea forward.

The fact is, projects, relationships, teams, they all work better when everyone feels their voice matters. We don't have to agree, but we can't truly make a good decision unless we've actually been paying attention to other views on the matter. We all need to learn how to listen.

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