Anything Can Happen: The Improviser’s MindSet At Work

The June 26 New York Times’ “Corner Office” column featuring Goop CEO Lisa Gersh was titled “Treat Meetings Like Improv Sessions,” and that was exciting for improv geeks like myself, who delight in discovering real-life applications of this art form. Gersh describes a meeting environment that sounds like organizational nirvana: people are seriously encouraged to embrace the ideas of others, the famous “yes…and” communication and collaboration tool improvisers use to build something from nothing in a seemingly magical way. On the improv stage, people are creating characters, relationships and a world in real time with other people, taking emotional and creative risks in a high-wire act that only works if everyone involved accepts and explores the ideas put into play by others. What the Gersh interview points out is the significance of “yes…and” to the energy and life of a healthy group, team or relationship. In a corporate setting this might mean recognition of a world-changing idea. In health care, it can save a life. In education, it can mean engaging students’ attention according to their emotional and psychological — as well as academic — readiness. In general, the improviser’s mind set prepares us to respond to what is happening rather than what we wish, planned for or believe is the way things should go.

Most of us know more than a little about what its like to be in meetings — or relationships — that feel implicitly unsafe, are rife with unacknowledged issues related to status and treat the new and unfamiliar as threatening. To work in an atmosphere of collaboration like Gersh describes is refreshing and probably rare, but that should not stop us from adopting the improvisational mind set if we can. In fact, it provides the most effective toolkit for navigating difficult circumstances.

The “yes..and” mindset. Improvisation is an unscripted, unrehearsed and unedited interaction and it only really works when the players let go of their agendas. Because of past experiences in groups or classes, many of us have developed habits of mind that tell us to shut down when something unexpected throws a curve to what we planned or predicted. Learning to say “yes” to what happens makes much better use of the energy we might otherwise use to judge, resist or deny it. This is not to say we approve of, agree with or even like what others say and do. We can radically disagree with other peoples’ behavior or policies imposed by an employer or a family member’s irresponsible choices. We might be rightly offended by bigotry, or angry about injustice. The “yes” is an open attitude to the truth of it, an acceptance that this is the reality with which we must deal. The “and” is what we do about it, the power to shift the direction of what is happening, to respond rather than react. The “and” is how we make things happen. The “and” is our creative freedom in action. Practicing this mindset results in greater psychological agility and creative responsiveness.

“Listen to peoples’ ideas almost like an improv session, and play with the ideas. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to do the idea. It just means you are going to listen to the idea and work on the idea.” Lisa Gersh, CEO, Goop

Through improvisation games and exercises we knowingly and consciously engage with the unknown and unpredictable, because what makes a game fun and exciting is the fact that no one knows how it will turn out. The uncertainty is uncomfortable, but the fact that we enter into this uncertainty together helps with the discomfort, and provides the space to figure out how we handle the same anxieties on the stage of life. This uncertainty is a natural part of the creative process, and of solving big, important problems. The question is what we will choose when we are thrown into it. Will we choose the comfortable and familiar patterns already formed or that have been chosen for us, or will we take a step toward shaping our reality in a new and creative direction?

“A group of individuals who act, agree, and share together create strength and release knowledge surpassing the contribution of any single member. This includes the teacher and group leader,” improvisation pioneer Viola Spolin.

To live in that mindset is to engage with what we are given, no matter how dark or devastating and through doing this raise the possibility, no matter how remote, of building on it in order to respond consciously and creatively. On the improv stage, there is an urgency and immediacy to acknowledge and respond to events, a mindset of increasing importance in a world rife with uncertainty but also teeming with possibilities people in the past could hardly imagine. If enough people adopt an improvisers mindset we just might be able to co-create a great future for ourselves and for the planet. Anything can happen. What will we choose?

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc a training company based in Smithtown, NY and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a storytelling show that features true stories, with a twist.