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Guest Column: Training with a Twist

Author: Lisa Safran
June, 2016 Issue

Mental agility and the ability to think on one’s feet are essential skills in fast-paced business environments.

Many businesses are currently adopting a new training and development method to help improve communication, increase mental agility, build collaborative teams, and uncover leaders within the ranks. Taking on new approaches to training are also an effective strategy in retaining staff.
What is this new method? It’s bringing improvisation into the workplace. Improv isn’t just stage entertainment—mental agility and the ability to think on one’s feet are essential skills in fast-paced business environments. Improvisation training helps enhance those skills in an effective, experiential and supportive setting. It’s about getting to—or staying at the top of—your game while having fun at the same time.
Imagine your staff in a room, paired off doing silly hand and counting games. Every few seconds, you hear one of them sing out a loud “Woo-hoo.” You’re seriously wondering how this kind of behavior could possibly enhance productivity and whether or not you’ve made a big mistake.
Well, consider this: Itmay look like silly hand games, but what’s really happening is that your staff is thinking as fast as they can, recognizing that inherent in the process is the propensity to make a mistake. Instead of wasting time mourning the mistake, they recognize that it happened, give it a shout-out and move on. Quickly, and efficiently, they’re practicing a high level of mental agility.
Here’s another one: Say you’ve come to a professional function as a favor to a friend. It’s supposed to be about networking. There are about 25 people present, none of whom look like they’d be beneficial to know, given your line of work. But you play along.
By the end of the two-hour session, you know more about several of these people than you know about the people with whom you interact regularly. You have a secret handshake with one, a secret word with another and a silly dance with yet another. You know about an earth-shaking experience from one of the participants, and you’ve gained a new understanding for people with different life experiences. When you walked in, the last thing on your mind was making each personal encounter a rich experience. Now you can’t stop thinking about how easy it is.
The difference? Improv was used to introduce fun games, but with a twist: They’re learning games.
There are several tenets of improv that are akin to good business practices:
“Yes, and.” When was the last time you were focused on making your partner look good? Get in the habit of saying “yes, and,” and not only does your partner look good, you’ve just opened the way for more ideas to flow between you. Try it for the next hour. When anyone says anything, answer with “yes, and.” Who knows what will follow those words?
Sincere listening. Another amazing thing to do in a business environment (and life, in general) is to just listen. Try it in the very next conversation you get into. Don’t form a response while you are listening. Just listen. Then play back what you heard and watch what happens. Typically, the interaction slows down and deepens. The speaker can rest, knowing they’ve been heard. You can relax and respond accordingly. See how this might help in any setting? There’s a game in improv where you talk for two minutes and then the other person repeats back what they heard you say. It’s meaningful to know you’ve been heard—and to hear how the words you used were interpreted.
We’re all in this together. It’s important to lose the ego and move the scene forward. That means making each other look good. It’s not about who gets the credit, because we work as a unit. Divided we fall, united we stand. How’s that for a productive attitude?
Is it any wonder improvisation has infiltrated the business ranks? People are people. We like to laugh and engage—it’s the way we’re wired. And most of us like to learn. So what could be better than learning through playing?
Progressive companies like Microsoft, Sephora, Highwire PR, Kaiser, and SFPUChave cooked up a winning combination of tried-and-true classroom instructional style with stimulating and engaging hands-on teaching: Voila, we have improvisation in the workplace. (Actually we had it all along. But now we’re now recognizing it and harnessing its power.)
Lisa Safran is a strategist and founder of Improv Consultants in San Rafael, which provides experiential training and development programs to support communication, leadership and team development. Reach her at or (415) 785-4986.


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