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The Rules of Improvisation Work In Business, Too

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Improvisational Theatre is the form of entertainment in which most or all of what is performed is unplanned or unscripted, and created spontaneously by the performers (unfolding in present time). The rules of improvisational comedy vary from one one theatre group to the next but their underlying principles tend to remain that same. There’s plenty of literature that discusses how the rules of improv might make their way into your business, but I’d like to touch on how just four rules might help small business convert customers or adequately address adverse feedback.

I spent a good chunk of my life in roles that required strict adherence to standard procedures. My time in the police force, fire brigade, and airline industry demanded a somewhat soul-destroying and Borg-like approach to how I approached my employment. Not unlike the Borg, I found myself linked to a collective conscious that dictated the manner in which lived a good chunk of my life. As a pilot in particular, I found that Standard Operating Procedures were so deeply defined that virtually no component of any sector (operated below 10’000 feet) allowed any freedom whatsoever in the way the operation was conducted. I could work with one another pilot from one day to the next and the first hour of every day from the moment we stepped on board an aircraft would literally be a complete carbon copy of the day before. Of course, this routine is established for the purpose of enhancing safety (as it should be)… but it can become a seriously mundane routine. I found that this robotic ritual would not only affect the level of enjoyment that pilots had professionally, but the monotony would work its way into their private life and degrade their ability to act human (it got to the point where I’d self diagnose every pilot I worked with as having Asperger Syndrome). I hadn’t really thought about what the long-term exposure to this Groundhog Day-style of vocation might have on an individual until I worked with a pilot that told me that he’d taken to Improvisational comedy to escape from the ritualistic nightmare that dictated his professional life. He’d found that he wasn’t able to communicate with anybody outside of the airport bar, and his communication skills had deteriorated to the point where his only topic of conversation was airline politics. Improvisational comedy was his means of reestablishing a grip on reality. I still vividly remember flying over Fiji as he credited the pastime for providing him with “verbal jousting skills” (I recall I immediately imagined two people having a knife fight with their tongues). Ironically, it was one of the few times I was truly engaged by what the other guy was saying… and a rare occasions where the conversation was more interesting than the scenery (and I was normally looking into the blackness of night).

How do you know if there’s a pilot at a party? Answer: He’ll tell you. What makes this joke a little sad is that he’ll often tell you he’s a pilot because he has nothing else to talk about. It’s said that when pilots are with a women they’ll talk about flying… and when they’re flying they’ll talk about women. Again, a true representation of pilot life. If you think I’m overstating how difficult it might be to extract any meaningful information from a flightdeck offsider, my frustrations can be partially validated by a friend that wrote an article on FLIGHT title “Good Flightdeck FORM” where he introduced a mnemonic (FORM) that can be used as a mini-checklist of conversation points: Family, Occupation, Recreation, and Money (he borrowed the model from another pilot that also had issues with mile-high small-talk). However, the idea of using a checklist of conversational points in and of itself is a little troubling. That said, I later introduced that model into aviation Human Factors classes before later supplementing the idea with various rules of improvisation. If you’re in the aviation human factors field, integrating the “Yes, and” approach as discussed below really does enhance the quality of non-critical communication in the pointy and blunt end of an aircraft.

The anecdotes aside, we do live in a world where good storytelling has become somewhat of a lost art. By virtue of modern technologies we’ve been dumbed down to a life of consuming memes and cat pics, and many of us – particularly the earlier generations – have failed to develop the skills necessary for effective business communication. Evidence suggests that creativity involves a complex interplay between spontaneous and controlled thinking – the ability to both spontaneously brainstorm ideas and deliberately evaluate them to determine whether they’ll actually work… meaning that the brain needs to tickle itself on both sides for an individual to properly express themselves. While creativity is a learned behaviour, it’s also possible for routine (or ingesting copious quantities of online garbage) to silence that part of our brain that makes us interesting. To develop and/or maintain a magnetic personality it really is important to exercise our brain (like any other muscle) to give us that verbal agility and comic wit that provides our personality with a broad appeal.

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”Albert Einstein

In many service industries, an individual will work with your business because they like you – not necessarily because of your product. The inability to connect early in a relationship and build any kind of trust seriously compromises on your conversion success. Additionally, good communication skills enhance your ability to make sales, communicate ideas, and satisfy customer concerns. Clearly, broadening the scope of our communication skills has a positive effect on how we’re perceived as a business person.

Following is just four rules of improvisation that you might integrate with your business communication.

“Yes, and”

I first introduced the “Yes, and” approach nearly 15 years ago when teaching airline pilots various communication skills. During an airliner abnormality, a Captain that dismisses the input of any crew member might alienate them from a discussion – potentially compromising safety (there are cases of aircraft crashing into mountains because a First Officer was afraid to speak up with an overly-assertive and “unfriendly” captain). I further developed this into a conflict situation called “Gray Matter” that considered how poor communication might distance crew in the same way during normal operations (named after a well-known hostile Captain). This behaviour – like all of the communication strategies used in aviation human factors training – translates directly to business; speak to anybody poorly and they’re less likely to engage with you in a positive way.

“Yes, and” is used to keep the participants of a conversation engaged, and to have their input heard without rejection. A response of “no” (or virtually any dismissive term) tends to diminish the value of the other party and may disconnect them from a conversation. “Yes, and” is a highly effective tool for strengthening communication, staying engaged, building relationships, leveling status, resolving conflicts, and creating an environment conducive to participation and without inhibition.

The “Yes, and” rule has been compared to Milton Erickson’s “utilization process” and to a variety of acceptance-based psychotherapies (Erickson’s “utilization approach” focused on developing a rapport with the subject so that he could communicate with his or her unconscious. Once he had developed an understanding of an individual’s unconscious mind, he would tailor his language in order to surprise and challenge it). While Erickson’s approach might be considered ‘manipulation’ (after all, many use it as the basis for a type of hypnosis), it does reinforce the techniques effectiveness by way of recognised psychology.

The “Yes, and” technique has become so universally accepted that it’s now widely used in couples therapy, workplace conflict resolution, and at other times where hostile communication has to be moderated. We advocate its use with anybody at any time. For example, when talking to a lead over the telephone you’ll generate a far closer ‘relationship’ if you validate what the other party is saying. The joy of “Yes, and” is that you can follow it with just about anything – the acceptance of another’s idea does not come with qualifiers, restrictions or judgment; rather it comes freely, unabashedly, and openly.

Complaint Resolution

The “Yes, and” method works with customer complaints because you’re constantly validating the input of the complainant before adding to the conversion. These types of discussions often (and wrongly) evolve into a type of debate. In situations where each side continues to disagree with each other, each party becomes further committed to their own point-of-view and are they’re far less likely to reach a resolution. The “Yes, and” approach almost entirely mitigates this occurrence because by acknowledging the other point of view (“Yes, and”) you’re offering a form of empathy that doesn’t further inflame an already escalated event.

Follow the Follower

In a business environment, the top-dog generally knows everything about everything, but nothing about something in particular. It’s becoming increasingly accepted in most progressive business circles that the top-down approach to hierarchical management doesn’t work… and probably never has. A true leader is one that acknowledges the expertise from within their ranks, and they’re not afraid to Follow the Follower. Crediting each individual with responsibility compels even the most reclusive employees to assert themselves because the perceived authority gradient is inclined only by way of job title.

If you subscribe to Peter’s Principle (and I do), you’ll know that it “… is an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach the levels of their respective incompetence.” The Dilbert principle (a variation on Peter’s Principle) was introduced to the mix by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, and he states that “companies tend to systematically promote their least competent employees to management (generally middle management), to limit the amount of damage they are capable of doing.” The comic that introduced the principle crudely stated that “leadership is nature’s way of removing morons from the productive flow”.

We’ve adopted both these theories and developed the “Edney Prinicple” (inspired once again by personal experience.. and not totally unlike the Dunning–Kruger effect). The Edney Effect examines the mindset of the incompetent individual that now holds a position where they could do the least harm… but the promoted individual incorrectly perceives the advancement to be based on intelligence and/or competency. If you subscribe to these these theories you’ll appreciate the need to Follow the Follower since the guy at the top is usually the least qualified… and you’ll understand that subordinates are often overlooked for promotion because they possess essential knowledge and skills that can’t be lost into management. The irony of our Edney Principle is that while this style of manager can best benefit from a “Follow the Follower” approach, they’re also the least likely to use it.

The “Follow the Follower” rule in improvisation stems from each actor spending their time on stage feeding the other individual in an attempt to heighten their performance. In other words, actors are more concerned about their partner than they are about themselves.

Be Specific (Make Statements)

The purpose of being specific in improvisational comedy is to introduce the who/what/when/where/why/how in the first few sentences. The idea is that actors tend to establish the baseline facts of the scene by making specific statements rather than by asking questions. Not unlike our approach to business decision making models, we’ll steal another mnemonic from aviation to demonstrate how the foundation (or the first few lines) of an occurrence, event, or idea can quickly be communicated.

One of the commonalities of airlines worldwide is what’s called a NITS Brief. In the event of an inflight occurrence it’s important to clearly communicate the event to the cabin crew and other stakeholders so they’re suitably briefed on their responsibilities. The NITS brief unfolds as follows: Nature of the occurrence, Intention, Time before ‘completion’, and Special Instructions (or what’s expected of each party). In virtually any type of business communication this simple approach establishes the facts and lays an early foundation on which more information might be applied.

We teach the NITS brief to Mortgage Brokers because they can use it to quickly communicate information to clients in an exchange that might represent the largest emotional and monetary investment their client has ever made (What’s happening? What are you doing about it? How long will it take? Are there any issues?). Establishing a predictable schedule of information for each element of an application (usually followed up in an email) provides relief, establishes you as competent, and contributes towards building trust.

In my own business, I like internal communication to follow the NITS format. Emails and system tasks are often padded with irrelevant content, however NITS provides a standardised format: the recipient has an expectation for certain information and the sender known exactly what should be communicated.

Allow Yourself To Be Emotionally Altered

Whether you like it or not, we’re ‘manipulated’ every day by biases, ideologies, politics, and beliefs that dictate the rules in which we live our lives. We often live our lives with a type of tunnel vision that restricts our ability to explore new ideas outside an established mindset. Free thinking is a philosophical viewpoint “which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or dogma”… although the approach is easier said than applied. The difficulty in escaping a Confirmation bias or Cognitive bias cannot be overstated (both discussed in upcoming articles). Biases are a human processing limitation resulting from a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms (bounded rationality), or simply from a limited capacity for information processing. Bottom line: it’s hard to change what we believe.

The marketing world is plagued by those that hold certain viewpoints without empirical evidence to support claims (note our name: BeliefMedia – there’s a reason for it). It’s easy for many to cling to certain ideas or ideals as truth without scientific validation because it’s often perceived that having an opinion about something is better than being undecided. Sure, as professionals it’s important to honour our beliefs, but not at the expense of truth… and it’s the former that tends to cloud our judgement when it comes to the latter. As a company (and as touted by our name) we see marketing as a Belief system with a truth that is constantly evolving based on the behaviour of the marketplace, technology, and even by the manner in which humanity evolves. Our truth is in a constant state of flux.

How does this relate to communication in business? If you’re talking to a client, it’s impossible to empathize with or satisfy their needs if you’re unable to put yourself in their position and have your firmly held beliefs challenged. The “Yes, and” approach tends to work well in this case because rather than blankly rejecting the ideas of another we’ll simply add to their proposition. The idea of “Yes, and” isn’t to be a ‘Yes Man’ – there’s clearly times when we have to be entirely clear about our position on a subject – but when a concept is fluid in nature we should always be willing to consider new information. There are various ‘debiasing’ therapies that are applied as a means for us to escape the shackles that limit the scope of our behaviour.

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”Yoda

So, it’s sometimes healthy to allow yourself to be emotionally compromised altered or professionally challenged.

Human Factors Classes

A number of the mortgage franchise businesses we’ve worked with have chosen to have us speak to their brokers about those factors that impair the effectiveness of communication. Our course is built upon 20+ years teaching human factors related subjects to airline pilots, general aviation pilots, the maritime industry, and traditional businesses. Brokers have typically been subjected to the old recycled and outdated information for years. We’ve upped the ante by building the most comprehensive and results-oriented education packages available in the industry.

While unadvertised, we do have a professional stage and television actor on staff that presents an improvisation class specifically designed for business. Integrated with our human factors class we’ve found that it translates to an immediate spike in business. If you conduct corporate retreats we have a unique package that can be incorporated into a multi-day program.

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