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How Improv Can Help Your Relationships (and Life)

The improv technique of "Yes, and..." can help with any difficult conversation at home or at work.
Image: Comedians Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts perform on stage at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre
Comedians Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts perform on stage at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on June 26, 2015 in New York.Brent N. Clarke / FilmMagic via Getty Images, file

What if I told you I had the key to repairing dysfunctional or broken relationships and it is — wait for it — improv?

Yes, improv, an American art form known for its comedic value, can help reunite people who may have wounded each other with words. One of the biggest challenges we face, in politics and personal relationships, is talking to each other collaboratively and moving the conversation forward when we find ourselves in disagreement.

As a communication-based art form, improvisation offers a roadmap for successfully navigating emotionally charged conversations. It can even help to defuse conflict so that we can arrive at a productive solution that respects and represents all people.

Image: Getting to "Yes And": The Art of Business Improv by Bob Kulhan
Stanford University Press

The primary principle of improv, “Yes, and…”, conveys unconditional acceptance. This means you accept what has been given to you at face value as an idea, regardless of the person who gave it to you or the perceived motivation of the person who is addressing you. “Yes” is the acknowledgement of receipt of information, not a blind agreement with the information. “And” is the pivot point with which you accept, react to and otherwise use/build on the idea that has been offered to you.

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So “Yes, and…” does not mean you will consent to or execute every idea, concept or argument. Rather, this approach is a device for understanding, creating open dialogue, and engaging in thoughtful, respectful disagreements. At the heart of a spirited conversation (i.e. argument), “Yes” signals openness to receiving new, crucial material; “And” is how this new material can be directly taken advantage of in real-time as new data-bombs to support your own point.

Here are a few hints from the world of improv to help you engage in thoughtful dialog and avoid digressing into exasperated, dead-end altercations, regardless of how you’ve communicated in the past.

1. Don’t make it emotional.

Improvisers value the show and fellow performers more than we value driving our own agenda. Our focus then is on the greater good. Of course, there are times that a conflict may emerge between teammates, and we must be willing to put that aside for the sake of the show. In truth, most of us come to a discussion with baggage and battle scars. It is important to develop techniques for standing up for your points without being defensive. Invest in the person you are talking with, without adding stress or counter-provoking, by listening to what they have to say fully. Focus on being present and in the moment—and avoid falling into the communication trap of thinking about what you are going to say next (your counter-argument) while someone else is talking to you, by using “Yes, and…”.

2. Be open to being open.

Improv is about flexibility and adaptability. Rather than taking every conversation as an opportunity to defend yourself and go on the offensive against another person, be open to the idea of using each conversation as an opportunity to learn, expand your view and find common ground with your fellow human. You don’t have to abandon your perspective in order to be open to the perspectives of others.

Image: Bob Kulhan is the founder of Business Improv consultancy
Bob Kulhan is the founder of Business Improv consultancy.Jordan Matter

Improvisers engage with their whole body. Body language and nonverbal communication make up much of how your communication is perceived. Use eye contact to connect on a personal level with the person with whom you are engaging. Control body gestures—don’t allow yourself to get fidgety or your body to undermine your thoughts. Breathe deeply and smile when you can.

4. Think slow.

This improv jewel is especially applicable when entering an emotionally charged situation. Take a deep breath before responding to help avoid reacting too quickly or too emotionally. Use each deep breath as an opportunity to be thoughtful. Empathize and try to understand the root of what someone is saying from their perspective; then communicate with them from their base. Stay focused on maintaining an open, even-keeled, engaging conversation. 

5. Give and take.

If two or more people are talking at the same time, to whom are you reacting and does that person know? The improv rule that only one person can speak at a time can be used to show respect, guide the pace of the dialogue, and influence the intensity of the conversation.

6. Be in the moment.

Improvisation only takes place in the moment. Try not to mentally or emotionally shut down as soon as you (vehemently) disagree with something said. If you start disengaging from the conversation and forming your list of counter-points while the person is still talking to you, refocus on what they’re saying. Stay present, in the moment, and listen intensively to clearly understand all that is being said.

7. Avoid the undertow.

Staying “out of your head” is paramount to great improv. Don’t give up what you can control—your tenor, your wherewithal, your intelligence, the pace of your thoughts, your body language. If you do get caught in the riptide of reacting too rapidly in real time, reestablish the rhythm. Ask for some time to wrap your head around the conversation and pull yourself out of a powerful undertow. Step out for a bit of fresh air, think logically over emotionally, and compose yourself before reentering the conversation. 

The best way to achieve all seven points is to stick to the two-word phrase “Yes, and…,” which encourages you to slow the brain down, be present in the moment, listen carefully to what was said, and be adaptable enough to engage in a thoughtful dialog. Use these tenets to engage and reengage in thoughtful conversations, appreciate unique perspectives, disagree without being disagreeable—and, ultimately, to inspire others communicate respectfully as well.

Bob Kulhan is the author of GETTING TO “YES, AND”: The Art of Business Improv and President, CEO, and Founder of Business Improv consultancy.