Lessons From Improv: Make Sure Your Meeting Messages Are Received

pointing-finger-nounWant to improve the learning at your meetings? Here’s what I learned from You. No, not you — “You“!

“You”
You is a delightful improv game I played at the Mindful Play, Playful Mind retreat in Mere Point, Maine. Players stand in a circle and the first player points to someone and says “You”. The pointed-to player does the same by pointing to someone else until the last person has pointed back to the 1st person, creating a pattern. The pattern is practiced a few times until everyone has it … and then another pattern is created, using names of a class of common objects such as junk food, or birds, or colors, etc. Once the players have got that pattern down … well, let’s run both patterns simultaneously! Then let’s start doing things like adding another pattern, changing places in the circle with the “next” player…

As the game gets more complicated, it becomes an exercise in concentration and dealing with potential chaos. You have to figure out how to deal with unexpected situations: e.g. two people point to you simultaneously with a pattern while you’re trying to pass a third pattern on to someone else. It’s challenging — and a lot of fun!

Learning from a debrief
After you play a game at an improv workshop, it’s time for a debrief, so we held one in between adding further complexities to “You”. Then we worked on incorporating our incremental learning into the next round.

What did we learn?

We discovered that when we were playing with multiple patterns going round the circle, the game fell apart when we incorrectly believed we had passed on a pattern to the next person and could turn our attention back to the circle to deal with the next pattern to be passed to us. It’s easy to point to the pattern’s next recipient, then hear another pattern that you have to respond to and fail to make sure that the pattern you’re passing has been successfully received. This only has to happen once for a pattern to stop going round the circle.

We realized that when we got caught up in the excitement and high-attention needs of a complex game, we played too quickly to reliably pass on pattern messages to the next person in the sequence, leading to dropped patterns.

We then realized that what we needed to do to play the game reliably was to switch our focus from frantically keeping up to making sure that our pattern message for the next person was received. We needed to wait until our desired receiver was giving us their full attention. Then we could pass the pattern, check visually that they had received it and, only then, turn our attention back to receiving patterns from others in the group.

The beauty of this focus switch was that if everyone did it, the game automatically slowed down as needed to successfully deal with complex or new situations. For example, if Mohamed & Juanita both wanted to send me a pattern while I was supposed to send one to Laurie, I would wait until Laurie was free to receive my pattern before turning my attention to Mohamed & Juanita. Mohamed & Juanita would see that I was occupied and wait until I had successfully sent Laurie my pattern, whereupon one of them would get my attention while the other waited until I was finally free.

If you didn’t carefully read the previous paragraph with full understanding, I forgive you. It’s much easier to experience how this focus switch works than to explain it.

The Lesson. You’ve gotta ask! Twice!
Ever had someone tell you something and you don’t understand what they said? Duh! Of course you have! When this happens, the obvious thing to do is to ask them to explain. Do we always do that? No! In Conferences That Work I tell the story of how an entire class of graduate students (including me) stopped understanding our math professor halfway through the semester, and none of us ever informed him we were lost. What a waste of everyone’s time!

When you teach it’s important to provide clear understandable information. When you facilitate or lead a group, it’s important to provide clear process instructions. But regardless of how “good” you are at this, there is no guarantee that your message has been received completely or correctly.

And so to our lesson:

If we want to teach or facilitate effectively, we need to check early and often that what we are saying has been received and understood. When we use the ask, tell, ask model of participative learning, the second ask — the follow-up check for reception and understanding — is the one that’s all too easy to omit.

When we improv players made sure that our pattern passes had been received, we were amazed at how complex a game of “You” we could successfully play. In the same way, faithfully using all three steps of the ask, tell, ask model allows us to check that our teaching and facilitation as been received and understood, allowing us to create complex and successful active learning at our meetings.