When you woke up this morning, you likely had a list of what you expected, maybe even hoped would happen today — finishing assignments, attending meetings, maybe enjoying a special coffee drink? But did you have a script of every conversation you expected to have at your bedside? Of course not. Nobody knows exactly how their conversations will play out.

That’s because life is improv. And so are our conversations and interactions at work.

We all improvise, every day, every hour, every minute. Even the thoughts that give words to our actions are improvised, in the moment, based on what’s happening around us, our perceptions, and how we react, consciously or subconsciously.

But if you’re like many people, that word, improv calls to mind, comedy.

And if you’ve seen some of the popular TV shows based on this fun method, you might be thinking, “Whoa, hold on there, improv’s a kind of theatrical magic that only really talented folks can pull off.”

Ready for some good news?

It turns out, there is a lot of research on the subject that shows improvisation can be a valuable professional skill and can promote learning. This is especially true in any industry that needs to address problems with miscommunication, employee disengagement, burnout, high resignation rates, and all the various issues that add up to a workplace culture in crisis.

Comedy vs. Drama

When actors first began learning about improv principles, the goal is usually for entertainment. As a co-founder of a stand-up and improv troupe, the goal was to be funny and delight audiences. Occasionally, a semi-serious scene would sneak in, but not often. We were pretty good a finding the funny.

Facilitating non-performance-based, so-called “applied improv,” requires a slightly different set of instructional skills, since the goal isn’t comedy. The goal is to cement relationships within colleagues, so they can function better as a team with less personal drama.

Participant success is tied more to building relationships and safe debriefing practices, allowing learners to share their “aha” moments than for performance groups. As a result of this subtle change in approach, communication improves and teams learn how to solve problems creatively and effectively (and often spontaneously) in the workplace.

The “Why”

You may ask, “How could that be?” The answer is because applied improvisational exercises tap into the power of experiential learning and the power of play. Cognitive behavioral neuroscience shows the experience of play is the best way human beings learn.

New ideas percolate because the facilitated applied improv environment has been intentionally created to be a safe space to learn and grow.

Setting the Stage

As trainers, you know that some learners will sit like stones, yawn and think about 20 different things (and/or shop for the next good deal online) if you aren’t able to engage their interest. Just telling people to talk to their neighbor isn’t enough to engage them.

Your first task is to assure people that although everyone will be participating in various ways during the whole day, there will be no written tests, and there is no right or wrong way to act/learn beyond the ground rules.

The exercises help participant’s ability to advance emotional intelligence (EQ) by taking the time to read non-verbal cues and respond to the emotions of others… not by being lectured to about listening but by practicing active listening and responding in a judgement-free zone.

As a result, participants laugh a lot during these workshops because they are so surprised and delighted with what happens, when they practice active listening …without having to tell jokes.

Staying in the Moment

The first improv principle can be summed up by practicing agreement: Say, “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but….”

That sounds pretty simple, right? Actually, it’s not as easy as it appears because, as adults, we are conditioned to question and challenge everything. Once you change your mindset (and build a so-called “improv mindset”), you’ll be surprised how much freer your work conversations will be if you say “Yes, and…”  add to the thought instead of quashing it.

The second principle is: Risk being imperfect. That sounds counterintuitive, especially if you are involved in a risk-averse industry. However, no matter your title or position at work, we all do our very best to produce our very best work. We reward perfection and feel remorse (or even shame) by our mistakes. That’s not to say that improv teaches us to lower our standards. Instead, the workshops allow a space to brainstorm and create without judgement.

Although anything can happen within an improv scene, no one really gets hurt or dies. Think of it as a mental gym. Just as athletes and dancers exercise their muscles to keep in shape, in improv we practice flexing our improv muscles. We risk making mistakes to free up our linear thinking and open up our ability to spontaneously create something new — out of nothing.

Happy Endings

As instructors, learning improv skills are particularly valuable when you are challenged to think quickly or need to collaborate with anyone who may have a different perspective or communication style.

When teams learn the principles and practice applied improvisational exercises from the arts, they enhance their EQ and communication skills, and develop more creativity and problem-solving skills. And both trainers and learners also love it because it’s fun!

Try practicing changing your “but” to “yes” today and see what happens.