7 Rules of Improv that Improve Communication

Your improv partner says to you, “I like you better now that you are gay…though I will miss the sex.” How do you respond? In improv you are prepared to hear something from out of left field. But even in our everyday lives we are thrown conversational curves and have to respond. Whether the conversation is casual, important, business-related, silly or life changing the rules of improv will improve your communication skills: people will want to hear what you have to say and you will say it with conviction.

RULES OF IMPROV = BETTER COMMUNICATION

Improv is to theater as jazz is to music: purely American and dependent on the skills of the performers. Great improv can be amazing to behold. The audience discovers the performance WITH the performers. You jump out of the plane together and each performance is unique. Conversations are the same. You are never sure where the conversation will end up. All you know is where it started and where it is. Though using the rules of improv needs practice and commitment they are very simple and can be used effectively by anyone and done well.

IMPROV IS CONVERSATION

The primary rule to improv is to simply listen and respond to what the other person says. In fact, a great improv group can take someone who has never performed and make them look great if that person will simply listen and respond honestly. But to do it well you need to internalize rules of engagement that all in improv follow. And by internalizing these rules you will also improve how effectively you communicate.

Here is my short list of the most important improv rules shown. These are followed by quick explanations on why they are important to use in your everyday life.

  • Agree – say YES!
  • “Yes, and…” – add more information
  • Respond honestly
  • Focused listening = a better scene
  • We are all supporting actors
  • Here and now
  • Actors matter – scenes don’t

SAY YES

The most important rule in improv (and, in my opinion, in life) is to say “yes!” In essence, start your response with everyone by agreeing. The biggest reason you do this in life is to gain the trust of the person you are speaking with – everyone wants to have their thoughts validated. Everyone wants to be acknowledged.

I realize that you can think of a hundred situations that saying yes or agreeing would lead to dire consequences. For example in improv someone might say, “You killed my dog!” Agreeing does not necessarily mean that you answer every question with “yes”.  It does mean that you acknowledge what was said to you and understand that from the speakers perspective what they said is true. “I loved your dog and I am so sorry that he is dead!” That does not deny what the speaker said but it does make it clear about your emotion about the dog. Even if someone really believes that you killed their dog starting your response with “I loved your dog!” will go a long way building the trust with the speaker. You are standing with them on common ground and you can go together to find out what happened to their dog.

YES AND

This is the easiest rule for most of us. Since most of us listen to respond we are always looking to add our perspective.  The problem with listening to respond, however, is that people often start to formulate their response as the speaker is talking which hinders clear understanding. An easy way to avoid this tendency is to effectively use silence. Allow for three seconds of silence to follow the speaker’s statement. Not only does it give your brain a chance to process the entire statement but it also creates conversational tension which increases the emotional impact of what you will say.

RESPOND HONESTLY

Some of the best lines in improv are just honest reactions to the situation. The same can be said of conversations. Even when it is difficult sometimes the best thing to say is what you feel. Though the person may not want to hear what you have to say an honest response is the most healthy for both of you.

Often responding honestly will conflict with the first rule: say yes. The best communicators learn how to do both. In your daily conversations think of ways you can find an honest answer that validates the other person without compromising your beliefs. The key is to make the person know that you understand their perspective so that they will understand your perspective.

FOCUSED LISTENING

Actively listening during an improv scene is key to knowing where to go next. In fact, a common saying in improv is “listen and respond to the last thing that was said.” This is true of conversation as well. The speaker’s last statement is of highest importance to them at the moment. By responding to that statement you are validating what they are saying and building their trust in you that you are actively listening.

In the “Yes And” section above we talked about listening to respond. The counter point to this is listening to understand. This is what focused listening is all about. In daily conversation you are listening to understand so you can respond honestly. The easiest way to insure that you listen to understand is to restate what the speaker has said in your own words, get confirmation that you have understood correctly, and then respond.

WE ARE ALL SUPPORTING ACTORS

You should have the mindset on stage that whoever is speaking is the star of the show and you are there to support them. If we carry this over to our daily lives we focus on how we can make the person we are speaking with the star of the conversation. Do this by restating what they have said, explaining how you support their position, and asking for additional information about the subject. Each time you do this you are building trust in the speaker which will open them to hearing what you have to say.

HERE AND NOW

Stay in the moment. In improve you want to avoid talking about things that are off stage. HERE = the people on stage. NOW = what is happening on stage. Improv will go quickly off track if the actors continually talk about a character or situation that is off stage. The audience begins to wish they were seeing that scene and not hearing about it. The same can be said for being a good conversationalist. Stay with the topic at hand. Stay focused on the person speaking and their topic. There will come a time when the conversation will flow naturally to what you want to share.

ACTORS MATTER – SCENES DON’T

When in doubt save the actor not the scene. Even if you think it would be funnier for the scene to throw your partner under the bus NEVER DO IT. Your partner will be on stage with you at a later time. Once the scene is over it is gone forever.

This is obvious in life but often forgotten in the emotional moment. The person you are speaking with is more important than the conversation. Even if you strongly oppose their position it is better to save the relationship for another day. At some future time they may be more willing to listen to your point. Or it could be that they are just having an emotional reaction that will pass. Once the conversation is gone a new one can be started. Once a relationship is gone there is no recourse.

NOW WHAT?

So you practice these rules of conversation but note that most of the people you speak with don’t follow the rules. If you have truly internalized the rules then you will answer honestly which will guide your listener to follow your same rules. Not everyone is open to these rules: nothing will change them from being closed minded and narcissistic. That’s OK. Just make fun of them. Making fun of closed minded people is one of the great joys of doing improv.  🙂

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