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)?

Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons from Anguilla: What meeting designers can learn from religious services

On my daily vacation walk to Island Harbour, I hear singing. As I turn the corner onto Rose Hill Road, the sound swells. It’s 7:30 am, but the morning service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church is in full swing and, as I pass, a familiar hymn from my youth washes over me, sung by a hundred enthusiastic voices. And yes, I admit it, during the second day of my vacation while enjoying the harmonies I hear, I’m jolted to think about religious meeting design…

Religious services are thought to be around 300,000 years old — by far the oldest form of organized meeting that humans have created. We know little about prehistory religious services, but the meeting designs used by the major world religions today date from the Middle Ages. Over the last thousand years, religious meetings developed a number of important features in order to maximize the likelihood that people would attend.

What’s interesting is that these features are largely absent from modern secular meetings!

So what can we learn from religious meeting design? I confine my observations to Christian and Jewish services, as they are the faiths familiar to me.

Don’t let any one person talk too long
The most frequent preaching length in Christian churches is 20 to 28 minutes. Although some pastors take more time, their number is decreasing. And in 2014, the Vatican recommended that sermons be limited to eight minutes or less!

While people joke about the length of boring sermons, contrast this relative brevity to modern conferences, where speakers typically speak for an hour. We know that listener attention drops sharply after ten minutes unless a speaker does specific things to maintain it. Religious institutions know this, and deliver short bursts of emotional content. Most meetings don’t, and attendee learning suffers as a consequence.

Include lots of communal activities
Singing is one of the most powerful fundamental, communal human activities; right up there with eating together. The oldest written music is a song, the Sumerian Hymn to Creation, dated before 800 B.C., and communal singing likely predates this by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Jewish and Christian religious services are filled with singing and praying. These are communal activities — each congregant contributes to a common endeavor. Some people have good voices, sing in harmony, and add pleasure to everyone’s experience. Even those who can’t carry a tune very well become part of something, a common endeavor, while they are singing a familiar and often beautiful hymn or prayer.

Communal activities are powerful because they align participants in a common experience: creating something beautiful and uplifting together. When was the last time you did something like that in a meeting?

Breaks aren’t communal activities
Most meeting organizers assume that the human interaction they’ve been told should be incorporated into their meetings is provided by breaks and socials. But breaks and socials aren’t communal activities — everyone is doing something different! The post-service Church Suppers and Jewish Kiddish give congregants time to meet socially, thus strengthening the communal experience provided by the service. In contrast, modern conferences expect attendees to bond after having primarily listened to lectures.

Keep ’em moving!
People don’t sit still at most religious services. They stand to sing and pray. In some congregations, dance is a normal component of the service. Physical movement during events is important because blood flow to the brain starts to decline within ten minutes of sitting still, leading to decreased attention. Sadly, it’s rare for meeting sessions to include any kind of body movement.

Provide an emotional experience
Whatever opinions you hold about religious services, it’s clear that they are designed to create an emotional experience. Given a choice between emotional and “book learning” experiences, people will invariably choose the former. Religious services offer the kinds of experiences that people prefer, served up in a safe and familiar way. Most conferences offer little emotional experience directly related to their content and purpose; instead such experiences — entertainment and socials — are glued onto the program as unintegrated extras.

Conclusions
I’m not suggesting that we turn all our meetings into gospel revivals. But think about it — how would your meetings be improved if they incorporated some of the religious services features I’ve shared here?

Church service photograph courtesy of The Anguillan

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 from improv: Be Average!

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

“The poet William Stafford used to rise every morning at four and write a poem. Somebody said to him, “But surely you can’t write a good poem every day, Bill. What happens then?” “Oh,” he said, “then I lower my standards.”
—from Radical Presence by Mary Rose O’Reilley

Patricia Madson’s fifth maxim is be average. Be average? Who wants to be average?! Hear me out.

Back in January I wrote Everyone Makes Mistakes about how many of us were taught while growing up that we had to do things perfectly in order to feel good about ourselves. Eventually I discovered this doesn’t work. The emotional stress incurred in attempting the impossible task of being perfect far outweighs any small increase in the perfection of work, and, most of the time, that same stress leads to a decrease in effectiveness. But there’s more to being average than letting go of perfectionism.

Because being average is a great approach to being creative. Here’s how.

When we’re working on being creative, there’s an assumption that we must try to come up with something that’s different, something that’s “outside the box”. Not necessarily, says Patricia Madson, and she quotes Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In other words, she suggests that we look more carefully inside the box.

When I was an information technology consultant, clients would often expect a shiny new high-tech answer to their problems. Instead I usually came up with mundane but creative solutions that took best advantage of available resources. My clients were momentarily disappointed—until they heard how inexpensive my proposals would be. (Luckily for them, I just charged for my time rather than the amount of money I saved.)

Think about Magritte’s pipe that isn’t:
pipe

or Duchamp’s Fountain:
Duchamp_Fountain

These artists expressed their creativity through household objects depicted in new ways.

One of the nice things about this kind of creativity is that we can all practice it using the gifts we already have. I find that dreaming up “way out” ideas is hard. It’s simpler for me to concentrate on seeing something familiar in a new way and be open to what pops into my consciousness.

There’s a delight in this kind of relaxed creativity. Be average and focus on the obvious. And, if nothing fantastic occurs to you right away, don’t worry.

Just lower your standards.

Conference facilitation lessons from improv: Say Yes!

improv-say yes-3588343908_cbfcbf005c

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

Patricia Madson’s first improv maxim is say yes. Which reminds me of a harrowing incident not so long ago…

I was facilitating the closing session of a West Coast peer conference using a fishbowl format that wasn’t working so well. People were eager to talk, but instead of a conversation developing we were jumping disjointedly from topic to topic.

And then things got worse.

“Selma”, a senior state official, began to speak. Listening, my heart sank as she shared that the conference had failed to adequately involve the significant numbers of minority and low-income attendees who were present. I felt shocked and dismayed. The conference organizers had made heroic and successful efforts to make it possible for a wide variety of people to attend, so Selma’s verdict seemed like a serious indictment of the conference process we had used, a process for which I was responsible.

Looking around the room, it was clear that people were upset by what they had just heard.

And then things got even worse.

Instead of responding to Selma’s comments, John, the next person to speak, started talking about something entirely different. I felt the credibility of the session shrink rapidly toward zero. People were disengaging. We couldn’t even face a difficult issue head on—instead we were going to avoid it and change the subject!

John finished, and I knew we were at a tipping point. And if, as an exercise, someone had described the situation and asked me what I would do, I would have drawn a complete blank.

But this wasn’t an exercise.

Somehow, at that moment, I accepted the situation and acted from my gut.

“John,” I said, my voice quavering a little, “please excuse me, but I feel we need to talk about what Selma just said. If we don’t discuss the issue she’s brought up, then I think we are all going to feel pretty dissatisfied with our time together today.” I turned to Selma. “Selma, I want to hear more about how you think we’ve failed some of the attendees at this event.”

That was enough for Selma and the group to enter an intense discussion of the issues she had raised. There was no more rambling conversation. And, though the resulting dialog was difficult at times, the tension in the room subsided as the participants shared and felt heard. The session became an authentic reflection on tough topics; a fitting end to a conference that had raised more questions than could be fully answered in the time we were together. And that was just fine with me.

I’m proud about how I responded at the crucial moment. In Madson’s words, I said yes to the situation I was given and responded from my authentic self. It wasn’t easy for me. It would have been safer to not take a risk by saying nothing and letting the group ramble on disconnectedly. But when we say yes to the challenges that come our way,  amazing things can happen. Try it!

P.S. If you’re interested in the inspiring organizational and cultural consequences of saying yes, I wholeheartedly recommend Peter Block’s great book on the subject The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters.

Have you said yes at a difficult moment? Share that moment below!

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/feastoffools/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0