23 February, 2018

Lessons From Improv

2017 was a rough social year for me. I was having a hard time connecting with new people I met and making new friends. I attended a lot of social gatherings over the weekends with the mindset of talking and interacting with people in more fun and meaningful ways, but I always fell flat of what I set out to accomplish.

Social skills are hard to come by because if you’re bad at socializing, you’ll be conditioned to not like socializing. Not enjoying socializing in turn makes you worse at socializing, and you have a vicious cycle. I felt trapped in this vicious cycle since my self-conscious attitude towards my social skills would pop out in a middle of a conversation while I socially implode mid sentence.

I didn’t feel like I made much progress in 2017, but I was eager to improve. Lamenting my problem to some friends, they recommended that I should try improv. I emotionally flinched at the idea, and came up with an excuse not to sign up for a class. When given more time to think about my social issues, I realized that I needed systematic ways to overcome my fears, and improv was a good systematic way to set a regular schedule to go outside my comfort zone

So I signed up for an improv class. That decision was one of the best decisions I’ve made in 2018. I wanted to highlight some of the takeaways I had from the class that carried through to my day-to-day interactions.

Not all Questions are Created Equal

Although in many conversational skill books recommend asking questions as a way to show interest in other people, in improv starting a scene with a question is generally a no-no because it puts the burden of setting up a scene on your partner. “What are you doing?” doesn’t contribute as much to the scene as “I see you’re rebuilding your computer again.” A good initiator plants an improv seed and invites the other players to build on the scene.

Not all questions are created equal. From my work I am trained to ask specific questions to get specific answers, but when I carry that conversational style to weekend parties, I find that asking those questions strongly backfires. I have had people tell me that talking to me felt like being in an interview. Asking specific questions only gives your partner a small set of responses to choose from, sometimes only one. For example, if I ask, “what do you do for a living?” There is only one answer my conversation partner can say. These answers are usually so automatic and devoid of individual expression that I missed an opportunity to connect with this person.

The only free outs in these questions are when they say the an answer you like. For example, if you do finance, and they do finance too, then you guys can continue your conversations there. If they don’t work in finance, then you’re out of luck and have to talk about something else. That’s why sometimes these questions are called “qualifier questions.” Your connection with this person depends on the answer he/she gives, and people don’t like having the burden of having to impress or interest you.

Being a person of varied interest helps only to the extent of expanding your preferred answer set, but even a “me too” itself is not sufficient to move the rapport-needle forward. It’s a false assumption that rapport-building has to come from common interest.

A good conversation avoids canned messages and invites your partner to express themselves. An open ended question is an easy way that’s taught to elicit that kind of behavior, but it doesn’t have to be a question that invites the other person to join in on a conversation. It could be a compliment, an observation, or a commentary. The important thing is to invite people to be able to freely express themselves without giving them the entire burden of expressing themselves.

The Most Important Part of Improv is the Relationship

Relationship is a conflated word here. I will use “relationship” as to describe how people feel/relate to one other. “Relationship” is also often used to describe formal interactions, independent of how the individuals in that relationship feel. I call that type of relationship “roles”.

There was an activity we did in class that involved two people going onstage and assigned roles (e.g. brothers in law). Then they had to start a conversation and they could talk about anything. One pair of students were assigned the student/teacher role, and that scene was very difficult to play. The problem a student/teacher dynamic was that people were too eager to play the role and forget about the relationship. The scene quickly dove into the teacher giving the student advice and the student passively listening. People playing on their roles made the scene less about the people and more about the role.

I found similar problems play out when I feel assigned a particular role. For example, in the few mentorship programs I was a part of, I often found myself too mentally grooved into my role as a mentor to develop a relationship with my mentee. I would avoid showing weaknesses to my mentee, gave advice that wasn’t asked for, or adhere to a strictly professional manner. Not seeing the human on the other side of the table resulted in a lack of rapport and chemistry. Less chemistry correlates with less trust to seek out my help when they ran into issues.

Similarly, even though I’m out of college, I catch myself often giving advice to college students that I meet, even if they don’t ask for it.

In improv scenes, it’s wise to quickly establish the relationship as a way of how people relate to each other. Do you and your scene partner hate each other, love each other, envy each other? When people can’t figure out your relationship, they can’t have expectations about how you should behave. Similarly, it’s important to establish a relationship when meeting someone new for the first time. Without some way for you to emotionally relate to one another, the natural response is for people to not care.

Act Like You’ve Known Each Other for at Least 6 Months

It’s a lot of drudgery of asking people for names, occupations, et cetera. Improv scene start with the assumption that people have at least known each other for 6 months.

I find that interacting with people as if you’ve known them for a while really helps build rapport quickly. When I proceed too cautiously, I tend to ask more questions and try to figure people out. However, when I act like I’ve known people for longer, I find myself avoiding the prerequisite small talk and jump straight into something interesting. Most people respond reciprocally when you treat them like a friend you already know.

Yes And, If Then

The biggest tenets of improv are arguably defined by two phrases “Yes, And” and “If, Then”. “Yes And” references the collaborative effort between improv members to build a scene. It’s a positivity mantra that sets the who scene open to all possibilities, because every agrees that they’re going to build something together and that they value everyone’s contributions to the scene. When you adopt a “Yes, And” attitude, you’ll find yourself more agreeable, less judgmental, and more likely to carry on a relationship with people.

“If, Then” is what gives the story consistency and depth. Improv scenes that are as random as a dice roll are as fun as a dice roll, so “if, then” attitudes help members find their common ground of scene direction that they want to take. An improv scene that is a bunch of If’s and no Then’s is just a bunch of unrelated one liners. By connecting the statements together through “if-then’s” you begin building a beautiful story.

Why You Should Consider Taking Improv

I think one of my favorite moments in my improv class was when I was really struggling to get through a scene in class. I sat in my chair dreading for my turn to go on stage to perform *that*. It wasn’t me. I’ve never done that, and I’ve never acted that way before.

At some point it was my turn. I got up, word-vomited on stage, and sat back down. I still felt afraid at some point, but at the same time I just *knew* that I was in no harm. Fears play out in my head in the form of mental scenarios, like falling off a cliff, being made fun of by people, or getting hit by a car. But this fear that I feel now is different. I didn’t think anyone was going to judge me or look down on me after my performance. I was not in any physical harm. When I took away all the different scenarios that fear manifests in my head, all I had left was the fear itself. This raw fear had no “worst-case scenario” attached to it. I just observed it just like a biologist would observe a physiological response from a wild animal. When I realized I was able to disassociate myself from my fears, I felt much more at ease.

The positivity that is nurtured in the improv classroom is amazing. Positivity and safe space has been so thoroughly enforced and demonstrated, even in the most trying of times is remarkable and admirable. After that incident I felt more comfortable around my fears. No, I haven’t full overcome my stage fright, but I feel much more comfortable tackling those fears in a safe environment.

I would recommend improv to anyone who feels like they need to work on their social skills. I’ve only been highlighting the benefits of improv with respect to my social life, but even if I were to ignore all the social upsides of taking the class, I have to admit that improv is pretty darn fun.

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