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: 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

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