Lessons From Improv: Seeing the Gifts in People and Events

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

Ooh, this is a hard one for me, but it’s so important for anyone working in the meeting profession.

“I can look at a person or event from three vantage points.

  1. To see what’s wrong with it (the critical method commonly used in higher education). Using this lens the self looms large.
  2. To see it objectively (the scientific method). Using this lens both the self as well as others are meant to disappear.
  3. To see the gift in it (the improviser’s method). With this lens others loom large.”

Patricia Ryan Madson, “wake up to the gifts” improv wisdom

Trained to be an academic for the first twenty-five years of my life, I default to Patricia’s first vantage point, the critical method, what’s wrong with it? (I’m consoled slightly by Patricia’s observation that this is her default vantage point too.)

It’s tricky to move to the second “scientific” vantage point, where “both the self as well as others are meant to disappear.” We are trained to do this when working with others, to replace our ego viewpoint with the perspective of a team or a common goal. From this vantage point, our focus is usually a specific outcome or the process needed to obtain it. As Patricia says, the people involved are “meant to disappear”. That’s great for making dispassionate decisions — but my soul is missing.

Finally, the third vantage point, the one that is difficult for me to maintain. When we live from an awareness of the gifts in our lives we become open to others and possibilities in ways that would never otherwise occur. Patricia describes a week in Japan immersed in an intensive process called Naikan, a form of gratitude meditation on one’s debt to the world. In Naikan you focus through a structured process on the answers to three questions: What have I received from (person x)? What have I given to (person x)? and What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?

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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.

Lessons for #eventprofs from an improv and mindfulness workshop — Part 2

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More of my experiences and takeaways for event professionals from the wonderful five-day improv and mindfulness workshop Mindful Play, Playful Mind, held June 8-13 2016, at Mere Point on the beautiful Maine coast — followed by their relevance to event design (red). (Here’s Part 1.)

The YOU game
In the YOU game, participants stand in a circle and create — by saying YOU and pointing to someone — patterns of categories, such as people’s names or breeds of dogs, around the circle. (Detailed description & instructions can be found here.) When you have several different patterns going around simultaneously, things get hectic. When we add people moving to the next person’s place in the pattern while playing, things get…demanding! The game vividly drives home this golden rule: When communicating, make sure that your message is received! When everyone successfully implements this rule, the YOU game flows despite complexity. And when we slip up, the patterns mysteriously disappear…

Successful event professionals learn the importance of this golden rule early! Another way to think about and practice this rule is the ask, tell, ask formulation.

Status
I have written about status in both my books, as it’s an important aspect of event design—and improv. At the workshop we played several improv games that explored status and allowed us to practice taking status roles and working to change our own or other’s status. One example was a two-person scene played over and over again with the same dialog:

Player 1: Hello.
Player 2: Hello.
Player 1: Been waiting long?
Player 2: Ages.

Each player had the option to choose their original status and then work to raise or lower their own or the other player’s status. Status is affected by qualities of body stance, control of space, speech, and interaction, and it’s something that I would like to be more aware of in my life. As a facilitator, I typically work to equalize status with people with whom I’m working, but, programmed by my upbringing, I also have a tendency on meeting new people to default to lower status until I know them better. Improv status work helps me become more aware of such proclivities.

Ted also introduced us to Patsy Rotenburg’s Second Circle model of communication and connection, which maps in many ways onto improv status work. Worth checking out!

If you’ve read my books or this blog you know that I am a proponent of replacing traditional preordained status at events with a peer model where individual status can and does change moment to moment. Such participant-driven and participation-rich events provide a fluid-status environment that supports leaders and experts appearing and contributing when appropriate and needed. 

Building things together
One of the most wonderful things about improv is the opportunities it gives us to experience what can happen when we build something together with others, something that is a true joint creation that would have been different if any one of its creators had not been present. Improv games provide an environment of mutual support, where players add to what’s currently been created. The addition can be of more detail or deeper focus on some aspect, but the whole glorious edifice only increases in size and complexity over time.

Many improv games provide this experience. One that we enjoyed a lot was three-words-at-a-time poems. We wrote group poems, our only instruction being to read what we received and add to it in a way that seemed true to what had already been written. Sitting in a circle, equipped with a piece of paper and pen, each of us wrote the first three words of a poem and then passed our paper to the next person in the circle who wrote three more words and passed the paper on again. Our papers circulated twice around the circle, with the starter of each poem contributing the last three words.

Here’s one we created together:

The Dinner
The cold lasagna sat on the white stool.
Uneaten, unloved.
Unlovable.
No cheese?
No noodles?
No meat?
No because too much.
VEGETABLES!
The guests departed, deflated, never to return to my sugarless, soulless party.
My hungry friends
Even hungrier for the lost moment
Of Italian goodness lingered beside
White plates and glasses.
Never host again.

I think the most satisfactory experiences I have designing, producing, and facilitating events occur when every person involved in the event contributes creatively to making the event what it becomes. It feels darn good to be part of something wonderful that an entire group of people made possible through their individual work.

Conclusions
Our five days together passed swiftly. Throughout our time together we had moments of play, joy, seriousness, sadness, intimacy, fun, learning, and much laughter. I love workshops like this, because they offer and support a unique experience for each participant—prescribed learning objectives are refreshingly absent, though I am sure that each person (including Ted and Lisa) took away something personally meaningful, valuable, and probably important. I have only covered some of what I experienced and enjoyed, and recommend Ted and Lisa’s skillful, supportive, and empathetic workshops to anyone who wants to explore the wonders of improv and mindfulness in a community of not-long-to-be-strangers.

I plan to be back next year; please join me!

P.S. Ted & Lisa’s excellent Monster Baby Podcast just published David Treadwell’s interview with Ted & Lisa, which was recorded during the workshop. They explain “why they offer these retreats, what the weekend usually covers, and how improv skills can lead to a better life. They also consider what keeps people from such ways of being in their normal lives and when they themselves can get into the “no” mode. David asks about how the retreat can help teachers, business professionals, and those in personal relationships before getting into the rewards and challenges of leading such retreats. Ted and Lisa offer a few specific examples of the kinds of exercises they offer and the podcast closes with a few short testimonials from this year’s participants. And if you keep listening past the apparent end, there’s a hidden bonus track improvised performance from Ted and Lisa!”

Lessons for #eventprofs from an improv and mindfulness workshop — Part 1

AdrianAndNancyAtMPPMImprov

You had to be there. In this case, “there” was a wonderful five-day improv and mindfulness workshop Mindful Play, Playful Mind, held June 8-13 2016, at Mere Point on the beautiful Maine coast. In this two-part article I’ll share a little of my experience and takeaways, followed by their relevance to event design (red).

How I got there
Although most people think of improv as a form of entertainment, I am fascinated by my experiences of improv as a tool for better living. As Patricia Ryan Madson, a teacher of both workshop leaders, says: “Life is an improvisation.” In addition, I’ve been working for over 40 years (with erratic focus and success) on practicing mindfulness in my daily life. So, when I heard in 2015 that Ted DesMaisons and Lisa Rowland, with whom I’d spent three days at a 2012 beginner’s improv workshop in San Francisco, were offering a workshop on improv and mindfulness, I badly wanted to go. Although that opportunity had to be passed up—PCMA made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: facilitating the 2015 PCMA Education Conference—I made it to the 2016 workshop.

I’m glad I did.

Where I came from
I became interested in improv after short experiences in various workshops during the last 15 years. After a three-day introductory workshop at BATS, I attended two four-day Applied Improvisation Network World Conferences (San Francisco 2012 and Montreal 2015). In Lessons From Improv, and other posts I’ve shared how improv shines a powerful light on core practices that improve events. Saying Yes to offers can allow amazing things to happen at conferences, Being Average improves our creativity by focusing on the possibilities inside the box, and Waking Up to the Gifts makes the importance of public and specific appreciations at events obvious.

Looking back, I’ve only one post about mindfulness. Not because it’s less important, but because I find mindfulness hard to write about.

The content and process of Mindful Play, Playful Mind was so rich that I’ll cover only a fraction of what one might learn from participating: the fraction that especially resonated for me at this time in my life. Here goes…

Practice
One of the key gifts I received from the workshop was the gift of practice of improv and mindfulness.

The principles of improv, though easy to grasp, require practice to master. I’m far from mastery. The first time I worked with a fellow participant in a simple game, Ted and Lisa gently pointed out that I blocked her first two offers (saying essentially “no, not that” to what she had suggested about my character and motivations). I noticed that I sometimes say “no” to perfectly appropriate ideas. Improv doesn’t mean accepting anything anyone says to you; rather it is a way to expand a world of possibilities that one might otherwise reject. Practicing saying “yes” over our five days together helped me be more open to saying it in my life.

Each morning, Ted led us thought an hour of movement and meditation. During the last ten years, I have had a rather, well let’s just say, sporadic mindfulness practice, consisting of yoga several times a week and meditating whenever I feel moved to do so. On the fourth morning of the workshop, I was so aware of the benefits of daily practice, I determined to start each day henceforth with yoga and meditation. This decision was a surprise to me, and may well turn out to be the most significant change in my life that I’ll directly ascribe to this workshop. We’ll see.

After we have grasped the basics of event design, mindful practice is how we improve: better at noticing what happens and learning from it, more focused on the present, and less distracted by our ego. Improv practice increases our creativity in dealing with the unexpected (turning broken eggs into omelets), makes accepting offers (of assistance and opportunities) easier, and helps us to work better with and support collaborators.

Being appreciated
It was a surprise to me to find during the workshop that I still short-change appreciations from others. I was taught at an early age to feel embarrassed by compliments, applause, or thanks, and, though I’m better able to accept these things nowadays, I still feel a certain reticence at accepting these positive affirmations.

Providing private and public appreciations to those who make our events possible is incredibly important. Accepting such appreciations as offers of love, connection, and support is equally important.

GroupPhotoMPPMImprov
Workshop participants with Ted DesMaisons (beard) and Lisa Rowland (scarf)

Creating connection with others
Although I had previously spent time with workshop leaders Ted & Lisa, I had never met my fellow participants before. All nine of us spent five days living, playing, and working together. We stayed in an old family home overlooking a stunning Maine estuary, and ate meals together. One afternoon we hiked together over Morse Mountain to Seawall Beach. Our workshop was held either outside or in the Mere Point Yacht Club next-door 😀.

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By the end of our time together, I got to know Ellen, Nancy, Nahin, Ellena, Wendy, and Everlyn better in some ways than our Vermont neighbors (and friends), with whom we’ve shared a driveway for over thirty years. The improv and mindfulness exercises we experienced together allowed us to help each other learn and grow, in ways that we will likely never fully know.

Well-designed events can change peoples’ lives through the connections we make during them and the learning and changes that result. What an amazing responsibility and opportunity we have!

There’s more! Read Part 2!

The tension between improv and planning at events

Facilitating the closing session at AIN 2015

It began with a tap on the shoulder…
…as I stood in the lunch line on the last day of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) 2015 World Conference. Turning round I saw Paul Z Jackson, President of AIN. “There’s a conversation going on upstairs that I think you’d be interested in,” he said.

It seemed an innocent statement at the time.

I was about to discover the depth of Paul’s craftiness.

I filled my plate with Quebecois goodies and climbed the stairs to find Diego IbáñezGina Trimarco CligrowPatrick Short, and Betse Green lunching together. I told them that Paul had invited me to join the “conversation”, whereupon Patrick explained that the group was planning the hour-long conference closing ceremony, which began at 2 p.m. Paul joined us and, looking at me, said that the closing ceremony typically included some kind of public evaluation of the conference. I looked at my watch and gulped. We had 40 minutes!

Typically, when designing process for a session with 200 participants, I like to have some time—perhaps a day or two—to think about the best ways to achieve the desired outcomes with the available resources.

This occasion was not typical.

I was not feeling the nervous excitement I usually experience in situations like this.

I was feeling fear.

But…I was with a group of great improvisors. People who had spent decades practicing and living improv. Perhaps we could work together and create something good enough, perhaps even great, in 40 minutes?

I have a simple tool for public evaluations, plus/delta, that I’ve used many times. But how could we optimize it for 200 improvisors?

My memory of the rest of the lunch is hazy. (I was definitely outside my comfort zone.) I think that Patrick made the great suggestion that the evaluations be presented as short improvs. Others chimed in. Together, we fine-tuned the process.

Rushing to the barn where the session would be held, we discovered that the local conference organizers were also working on their plan for the closing ceremony. They had already decided to hold it outdoors—it was a beautiful day—and had lit a bonfire. A few-minute conversation determined that we would hold our evaluation in a circle around the fire, and then they would close the conference in their own way.

We started bringing out chairs from the barn. I found three scribes to capture in writing the conference insights that were about to be shared. We arranged enough chairs and set up an electronic organ for Patrick to accompany the improvs, and it was time to start.

There was no more time to plan. Diego and Gina introduced themselves and me, and I was on.

The conference evaluation
Talking as loudly as I could (there was no sound equipment and I don’t have a strong voice) I explained that we were going to do a rapid public evaluation of the entire conference and gave them an overview of the process. Then I asked everyone to form small groups of 5 or 6 people, and gave them seven minutes to:

  • share their positive experiences of the conference in their group; and
  • then create a short improv piece about the changes they would like to see in the conference to make it better.

There had been some logistical challenges during the conference—e.g. no coffee was available at breakfast on the first day…oops!—and I knew from past experience that participants tend to concentrate on such issues during the change portion of the evaluation. So I made a point to direct the groups to focus on non-logistical/obvious conference improvements while they were working on their short improvs.

Once the group work was done, everyone returned to the circle and individuals began sharing their positive experiences of the conference. I had never done this kind of sharing in a circle before, so I improvised the idea of walking slowly around the circle with my arm pointing to each person in turn. As my attention swept around the circle, people put their hand up if they wanted to say something, and I stopped for them to share. After I had gone around the circle once, I announced I would make two more circuits for sharing positive experiences. This worked well—different people spoke during each rotation and everyone had three opportunities to share or pass.

Next we switched to the change portion of the evaluation. One group volunteered to start, and we began to experience a wide variety of creative group improvs that conveyed the changes the members suggested. (Coffee delivery improvements, were, still amusingly incorporated.)

Normally, I am very aware of time issues when facilitating events. The closing session had to end on time, as one bus was leaving immediately to allow some attendees to catch flights back in Montreal. On this occasion, concentrating on the improvised flow, I was doing a poor job of managing the remaining time for the group sharing. Thankfully Gina noticed this, stepped up, and ingeniously coaxed the remaining groups to spend less time on their improvs. I doubt that anyone even noticed she had taken over on the fly. She supported me and made me look good—thank you Gina! My job was done.

After the improvs had all been presented and enjoyed, the local hosts took over and ran a brief and moving closing, tying together the Nature theme of the conference with everything we had experienced over the previous three days. The contributions of many people were thanked and recognized in humorous, yet heart-felt fashion.

As the session ended, one last facilitation task remained for me. I found the three scribes who had recorded the positive and change ideas and took safe possession of their valuable notes. Later, back at my Vermont home, I photographed the notes and emailed them to Paul so he would have a permanent record available to use for improving future AIN World conferences.

What did I/can we learn from this experience?
We are all improvisors. Every time you have a conversation with someone, for example, you invariably do not know what they are about to say, and your response is improvised. Competent facilitators, leading group conversation and/or process, are improvisors because—despite having a plan for achieving desired group outcomes—they adapt what they do from moment to moment in response to the group experience.

Fifteen years ago I would have quickly turned down the opportunity Paul offered. I saw myself as a process designer and planner, and my fear of “failing” to be highly competent when asked to improvise large group process overrode any perceived benefits. Today, I am more comfortable taking the risk of being less than perfect, of being average, as improvisors like to say. So one thing I learned on that sunny afternoon was that I am willing to step more out of my comfort zone and into the place where magic happens when responding in the moment.

I also learned about the value of trusting support. I would have turned down Paul’s offer if I had had to create the session by myself. Being surrounded by folks trained in improvisation is probably the best support structure you can have! We are all working to make each other look good, because we know that the best things happen when we work supporting each other.

Does this whole experience mean that improv trumps planning when creating and facilitating group process?

No! My experience with plus/delta as an evaluation technique was gained from much experience involving plenty of planned experiments over the last ten years. My planning experience made it easy to integrate the core plus/delta process into the unique circumstances of the AIN 2015 conference closing session. As far as I know, no one else at the event had the expertise to create this form of public evaluation, so my years of planning plus/delta sessions allowed the group to benefit from a process tool that I knew would be effective.

In addition, my very last act for the session—collecting the scribes’ notes in the hurly-burly of mass crowd good-byes, and making sure they were conveyed safely to the AIN organizers—was a reflex planning move that improvisors, improvising in the moment, might overlook. (We saw it happen; remember the absent coffee?) As meeting professionals know, a planning mind-set is essential to reap the full benefits of creative process at events.

The tension between improv and planning at events
I’ve written this behind-the-scenes look at 100 minutes of terror and wonder at the close of AIN 2015 because I think it illustrates that there is a natural tension between improv and planning at events. The tension appears because, at first sight, they are mutually exclusive ways of thinking about what “should” happen when people meet to learn and connect. The mythical planner’s goal it to make sure that everything goes according to plan, while the mythical improvisor’s goal (well, one of them) is a reality where nothing goes according to plan.

You can’t get much more tension than the difference between nothing and everything.

Yet this very tension provides the energy that we feel at the best events and experiences of our lives. From moment to moment, there is a play between improv and planning. It is the Taoist experience, the energy that arises from the tension of opposites.

And it is a tension to be embraced, not feared. That is our challenge.

Photo courtesy of Alex Tran

Improve conference sessions and workshops with Color/Advance

Color Advance Luncheon of the Boating Party 11005726293_f7bdd2ae6c_z

Last week in Montreal, during a pre-workshop at the fabulous Applied Improvisational Network 2015 World Conference, I realized how an improv game could be used to improve group process.

At the workshop, run by the talented Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was reintroduced to an improv game called Color/Advance. It’s a simple game for two players, a storyteller and a listener.

At any time while the storyteller tells a story, the listener can give either of two commands: “Color” or “Advance”. Color instructs the storyteller to describe whatever she is talking about in more detail, while Advance tells her to continue with the story. The game is typically used to improve storytelling skills, using the listener’s requests as feedback for determining when more detail will spice up the story and when it’s time to continue with the plot.

It struck me that Color/Advance could be used in a different way, as a group process tool, in a conference session or workshop. Often, when I lead a meeting, I have limited information on what the participants want to get out of it. With up to about fifty participants I normally use the Post It! technique to uncover the wants and needs of the group and then tailor the session to fit as well as possible, covering a judiciously selected set of the topics mentioned.

This approach works very well, but there’s no standard way for attendees to indicate during the session that they would like more or less information to be shared on the current topic. While it’s not unusual for people to occasionally ask for more detail, few will spontaneously volunteer that they’ve heard quite enough about a topic and they’d like to move on to the next one.

So I propose that Color/Advance can be given as a tool to session participants to give them control over what is covered during a session, as follows.

After you’ve used Post It! to create an impromptu outline of the topics to be included, explain that at any point anyone can say “Color!” meaning that they want more detail of what is being said. Or, they can say “Advance!” which means “I’ve heard enough about this, please move on to the next topic.” Also explain that people can respectfully (and succinctly) disagree, so that the wishes of one person are not imposed on the entire group.

I plan to experiment with this approach over the next few months, and will report back in the comments or another blog post on how well this works. If you have thoughts about this technique or have used it in this way, please let us know in the comments!

I love discovering how to harness human process in new ways. Body voting makes preferences and opinions public. A fishbowl allows a group to have a useful discussion. And, thanks to my experience at the AIN 2015 World Conference, we have a new tool Color/Advance for conference session or workshop participants to fine tune the information shared to match their wants and needs.

Photo attribution: Flickr user ncindc

How to create a safe environment for learning at your event

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In the events world, the word “safety” has a couple of meanings. The first is objective: the degree of protection from undesirable environmental hazards. At events we maximize the objective safety of attendees by eliminating or minimizing the likelihood of tripping, slipping, falling, falling objects, food poisoning, etc.

The kind of safety covered here is subjective safety: How safe do attendees feel? As the following quote indicates, if we are to optimize learning at a meeting we want participants to be relaxed but alert; in a state I like to call nervous excitement.

“…brain research also suggests that the brain learns best when confronted with a balance between stress and comfort: high challenge and low threat. The brain needs some challenge, or environmental press that generates stress as described above to activate emotions and learning. Why? Stress motivates a survival imperative in the brain. Too much and anxiety shuts down opportunities for learning. Too little and the brain becomes too relaxed and comfortable to become actively engaged. The phrase used to describe the brain state for optimal learning is that of relaxed-alertness. Practically speaking, this means as designers and educators need to create places that are not only safe to learn, but also spark some emotional interest through celebrations and rituals.”
—Jeffery A. Lackney, report excerpt from the brain-based workshop track of the CEFPI Midwest Regional Conference

It’s easy to create a meeting environment that feels unsafe for most if not all attendees. Without careful preparation, asking people to walk barefoot over hot coals, dress up in costumes and dance on stage, or give impromptu talks to a large audience will evoke feelings of discomfort and fear in almost everyone.

It’s also easy to create a safe event environment by treating people as a passive audience who are not required to participate in the proceedings in any way. Unfortunately this is often the choice made by many meeting organizers who are themselves afraid of what might happen if attendees are subjected to something “new”.

So, how do we strike a balance between unduly scaring attendees and treating them as inactive spectators?

It’s not easy.

Creating the right amount of nervous excitement for a group of people is challenging, because each of us responds uniquely to different situations. For example, meeting someone new at a social might be easy for John and scary for Jane, while Jane has no problem skydiving from an airplane at 12,000 feet which is a prospect that terrifies John.

Ultimately, we can’t control other people’s feelings (let alone, often, our own)! Consequently, we are unable to guarantee that anyone will feel safe during a meeting session. But there are some things we can do to improve participants’ experience of safety when they are faced with the new challenges invariably associated with learning and connecting.

Create an environment where it’s easier to make mistakes

“Learning is fun when errors don’t feel like failures.”
—Laura Grace Weldon, Fun Theory

Why is feeling OK about making mistakes important? With traditional broadcast learning, your comprehension of the material presented—or lack of it—is something that happens in your brain and is essentially invisible to everyone but yourself. In a social context, this creates a great deal of safety; no one can easily see that you don’t understand.

But because experiential learning requires us to do something external, like talking to our peers about our understanding or ideas, or physically performing an activity, we lose this invisibility safety net. This brings up the possibility that others may experience us doing something “dumb”, “stupid”, “slow”, etc. (For an example, read the “Graduate student story” on pages 62-64 of my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.)

As someone who was educated in a school where knowing the “right answer” was praised and lack of knowledge or understanding denigrated, I felt ashamed about “making mistakes” in public for many years, and, unfortunately, this is a common experience that almost everyone learns to some degree while attending school as a child.

So how can we create an event environment where it’s easier to make mistakes? Here are three suggestions:

1) Tell participants that it’s impossible to make mistakes
A simple way to create a safe environment for what participants might otherwise feel is risky is to tell them that whatever they do is the right thing.

For example, when I introduce the opening technique The Three Questions at an event, I tell participants that it’s impossible to answer The Three Questions incorrectly. Whatever answers they give are the correct answers. This sounds almost too simple—but it works surprisingly well!

2) Improv exercises
One of the first games used to introduce improvisational theatre (improv) to those with no prior experience is keep the ball in the air, usually shortened to ball. Players stand in the circle and a ~12” diameter hollow rubber ball is tossed into the air. The object of each game is for the group to keep the ball in the air with any part of their body, with the game ending if anyone contacts the ball twice in a row or the ball touches the ground. Holding the ball is not allowed. Each ball touch adds one to the group’s score, which the group shouts in unison after each contact. A game rarely lasts more than a minute or two, so many rounds can be played in a short time.

Games of ball get a group working together on a goal, provide a challenge (reach a higher score than in prior games), include physical movement, and are fun to play. Sooner or later, every game of ball comes to an end because the ball hits the floor or is touched twice in a row by the same person. But because ball is a lighthearted game the thought that the last person who contacted the ball failed in some way never really matters. Everyone just wants to play another game of ball.

There are many improv variants of ball, played with one or more imaginary balls. When you are tossing and receiving multiple imaginary colored balls to people in your circle, everyone will “make mistakes” (if they don’t, the leader just increases the number of balls), and again it doesn’t matter. Everyone making mistakes is simply part of the game.

Improv exercises provide wonderful opportunities for people to get used to making mistakes. That’s why they are increasingly used for leadership development and organizational team building. Games like ball provide an enjoyable transition to environments where making mistakes is the norm, rather than something to be ashamed of.

3) Model being comfortable with messing up
It’s crucial that facilitators and leaders of conference sessions model the behaviors they wish participants to adopt. If I am not comfortable with facilitating new or impromptu approaches which may or may not work, how can I expect my participants to be comfortable attempting them? This doesn’t mean, of course, that I should deliberately mess up, but responding in a relaxed manner when I do provides a reassuring model for participants to adopt and follow.

The right to not participate
It’s important to explicitly give attendees the right not to participate. Clearly state that people do not have to take part in any given activity before it begins. When working with a group, do not put specific individuals on the spot to participate; ask the group as a whole for feedback/ideas/answers/volunteers instead.

At the start of an extended (adult) event I tell participants that I want to treat them like adults. I encourage them to make decisions about how and when they will participate, and explain that they are entitled to take time out from scheduled activities, or devise their own alternatives when desired and appropriate.

However, it’s also fine to set limits on non-participants—a common example would be to ask people who do not want to participate to leave the session for the duration of an activity rather than staying to watch.

Provide clear instructions
I think that one of the hardest things to do well when leading a participatory activity is providing clear instructions. After many years it’s still not unusual for someone to complain that they don’t understand the directions I’ve given. I recommend writing out a narrative for exercises beforehand and practicing until it feels natural and unforced, but this won’t cover ad hoc situations when unexpected circumstances arise and you need to improvise.

Besides sharing instructions verbally, also consider displaying them on a screen or wall posters, or providing a printed copy for each participant. Once you’ve shared your instructions, ask if there are any questions, and then be sure to pause long enough for people to formulate and request clarification of what they don’t understand.

Learn from participant feedback. Remember what was not clear and revise your instructions as soon afterwards as possible, so that the next time you run the exercise you will, hopefully, be better understood. It may take several attempts before you find the right choice of words, so don’t give up!

Consider providing explicit ground rules
Providing explicit ground rules at the start of sessions and events can, in my experience, significantly improve participants’ sense of safety while working together.

Conclusion

“There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
—Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

As Keith Johnstone reminds us, people choose to participate or not for their own good reasons. Respect their choice, while making it as easy and safe as possible for them to take the risk of trying something new.

Photo attribution: Flickr user willowpoppy

Facilitating change: The value of knowing where you are

How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

Knowing where you are: The Story Spine
Last month, during my immersion into the world of improv at a fabulous BATS Intensive in San Francisco, I learned about The Story Spine, a core ingredient of the improv form. The Story Spine, charted above by my teacher Lisa Rowland, is a blueprint for the dramatic structure of basic stories, whether those told in improv or elsewhere. (Incidentally, it includes all the different pieces of my favorite change model, that of Virginia Satir, which one of these days I’ll find time to write about).

Lisa told us that the first two parts of the Story Spine—Once upon a time… and Every day…— are called the platform. Many improv beginners feel compelled to start with something dramatic or unexpected. Lisa explained that this doesn’t work because you can only generate drama when the audience has a baseline from which drama can spring. You need to establish a platform before something new—what in improv is called the tilt—happens. Beginning a scene being pelted with oranges is confusing. Waking up tired on a lumpy mattress with your longtime girlfriend Suzy, entering IKEA to shop for a new bed, and then being pelted with oranges has potential.

Which reminds me (the platform, not the orange pelting) of the second question I use in a Personal Introspective

What is the current situation?
The second question on the card I use for running a closing conference personal introspective asks: What is the current situation? I used to think this question was the easiest of the five questions to answer, but now I’m not so sure.

Just like in improv, it’s tempting to decide that dramatic change is needed and then rush into listing ideas for reshaping your life. The unfortunate reality is that you can’t really figure out where you want to go until you know where you currently are.

Knowing where you are doesn’t just mean the facts of your situation:

  • I’m stuck in a job with no prospects of career advancement.
  • Our customers are complaining about the amount of time they have to wait on hold.
  • Being responsible for all the logistics of our events exhausts me.

though these are important. It also involves noticing how you feel about these facts, because our biggest blind spots are usually those that are just too painful or embarrassing to notice.

  • I feel angry doing the same dead-end job day after day. 
  • I feel inadequate if I can’t help every customer so they’re completely satisfied.
  • I feel selfish if I delegate and take some downtime for myself.

Working on teasing out the feelings behind the facts usually pays rich dividends.

Don’t rush
So don’t be in too much of a hurry to sink your teeth into the juicy possibilities of change in your life. Be sure to spend enough time figuring out the current situation, especially the feelings that are driving your desire for change. That will make the tilt, when it comes, all the sweeter.

 

Should we fire the icebreaker?

Paul Z Jackson, President of the Applied Improvisation Network, recently wrote about a great discussion of icebreakers that’s been running for four years on the AIN website:

There’s a fascinating discussion on our website about whether to call activities with which we begin workshops ‘icebreakers’, ‘energizers’, warm-ups’ or something else.  Whatever we call them carries assumptions – such as assuming there is ice in the room that needs to be broken.

Paul Levy suggested we might name such activities as ‘zoning-in’ or ‘confidence builders’.  As improvisers, we take collaboration and co-construction seriously, and so we can expect our assumptions to have a significant impact on what happens.  If we start a conversation in which people look for ‘ice’ or ‘resistance’ or other concepts which may prove unhelpful, we’ll assuredly find them.

If we start a conversation in which people look for ‘best hopes’, ‘useful resources’, ‘interesting similarities and differences with each other’, then we’ll find those.  It’s a simple application of ‘yes… and’, where our offer is for constructive and useful qualities that will serve the session well.
—Paul Z Jackson, President, Applied Improvisation Network

The whole discussion is well worth reading. Some of the participants make the case that perhaps naming whatever we do at the open of an event is best avoided, and I’m sympathetic to that. When we name something we often end up unwittingly restricting its power and influence. And yet, when marketing what we do we sometimes need to provide a name, something that is meaningful to a potential client. It’s a quandary. But a good one to have.

Should we fire the icebreaker? What do you think?

Photo attribution: Flickr user by_invisiblekid

Lessons From Improv: Giving Appreciations at Conferences

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

“…once we become aware of the level of support involved to sustain our lives we quickly realize how our debt grows daily in spite of our efforts to repay it.”
—Greg Krech, Director of the ToDo Institute

Patricia Madson’s ninth maxim is “Wake Up to the Gifts.” Gifts? What gifts? Well, although this post is about giving appreciations at conferences, first we need a little context.

The Japanese practice of Naikan, an art of self-reflection, uses three questions to examine our relationships with others:

  • What have I received from (person x)?
  • What have I given to (person x)?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?

When I meditate on the answers to these questions for a significant person in my life, I usually quickly discover that my list of what I have received is far longer than what I have given. When you extend these questions to the things that surround and support us in our daily lives this imbalance immediately becomes apparent. I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to the countless people who grew and prepared the food I eat, who designed, manufactured, and delivered the computer I’m writing this on, who made it possible for me to live in and enjoy this world in so many ways.

It’s hopeless for us to be able to “pay off” these debts. But one thing we can do is to acknowledge them. And that’s why I include time for appreciations at every conference.

Japan present 4169964011_b8564eacfcAppreciations are more than thanks. Imagine that Susan is standing before the gathered attendees, publicly thanking people, including you, Bob, for your work organizing a conference. Here are some examples of what she might say. After you read each one, take a moment to notice how you feel.

[Susan faces audience]
“The organizers contributed a lot of hard work putting on this conference.”

[Susan faces audience]
“Bob worked hard to get out the face book.”

[Susan faces audience]
“Thank you, Bob, you worked hard to get out the face book.”

[Susan points to you and then faces the audience]
“I appreciate Bob, who worked hard to get out the face book.”

[Susan asks you to come out from the audience, faces you, makes eye contact, and speaks directly to you]
“Bob, I appreciate you for working hard to create the draft face book in time for our conference roundtable, and for rapidly producing an accurate and attractive final version. This helped all of us get to know each other quickly, and gave us a valuable reference for keeping in touch after the conference ends.”

Did you find that you felt appreciated more by each successive version, and that the final version had much more power than the others? If so, you’re not alone. In the final version, Susan:

  • Invited Bob out in front of the room;
  • Spoke to Bob directly, making eye contact;
  • Used an “I” message—“Bob, I appreciate you…”; and
  • Described specifically to Bob what she appreciated and why.

Each of these four actions strengthened the power of Susan’s message.

There’s more about giving appreciations in my book. They offer a simple, effective, and powerful way to significantly increase bonding and connection in your conference community. And, regrettably, good appreciations are so rare in our everyday life that, when people receive one, they are likely to remember it for a long time.

So, wake up to the many gifts you are receiving every day! And actively, openly, appreciate the givers when you can. You will be giving a great gift yourself when you do.

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/min_photos/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0