This is a guest post by Sarah Holt, a friend and client who has experienced job search armed with the special weapon of being a teacher and performer of improvisational theater, also known as improv. I hope this helps others!
As a long-time improv teacher and performer, I am constantly struck by how applicable its principles are to just about everything. Many of my students sign up for fun or because they’re curious or because their friends tell them they’re funny or because they like to perform but don’t want to memorize a script. All of them get much more out of it: communications skills, discipline, focus, listening to and trusting your intuition, adaptability. The list goes on and on.
But one of the greatest gift of improv is to see the unknown differently. Rather than a threat, it’s now filled with possibilities.
Being out of work is frightening. When will it end? How will it end? What am I doing wrong or right or not at all? The job hunt is riddled with unknowns: people you’re meeting for the first time, deciphering yet another online application procedure, not knowing whether a posted job is really, truly open, spending time and energy on leads that may or may not pan out. The list goes on and on.
Improv can help turn the unknown into an adventure. Since you are making it up with others as you go along, nothing can be planned. Instead, you learn skills to find your way, including letting go of expectations in favor of recognizing possibilities in the here and now. This means listening and acknowledging the information you are given — by the other performers, the audience, even that car alarm that suddenly went off outside and “interrupted” your scene. At every moment, you are co-creating with whatever the universe throws in your direction.
Many of today’s improv games were originally used as a way to encourage socialization and communication. Although now popularly associated with performance, specifically humor, learning improv, whether you’re interested in performing or not, hones those same skills. For example:
How many times do we really listen, instead of waiting for our turn to speak? Improv teaches you to listen — really listen. You and your scene partner(s) are building the story together. This isn’t done randomly or competitively. There is a step-by-step process that requires respect and collaboration. Improvisers learn to go of the need to drive the conversation to a specific result. Instead, they focus on what was just said by the other person. They make connections.
This is called “yes and.” It’s one of the most essential principles of improv. With “yes,” you are accepting what the other person has said or done. You don’t have to agree with it! But you have heard it and must acknowledge it. With “and,” you are adding to the reality of what was just said. What you add is dependent on what you just heard.
“Yes and” is fundamental to active listening. No one is “losing ground.” What you’re doing is respecting your conversation partner’s contribution by hearing it and then responding to it. Keep in mind that you have to allow the other person to talk! In improv, players learn to say just the right amount to keep the story going.
So, when you’re on a job interview, or you’re networking, consider the “yes and” principle. Co-create the conversation. Imagine the discoveries you’ll make if you move the discussion ahead along with the other person. Maybe s/he isn’t a fellow practitioner, but you’ll quickly be mirrored. Because people love to be heard and respond positively when it happens. Want a simple way to start? Open your response with “Yes, and…” Or just think it before you speak.
Of course, listening, paying attention, and contributing aren’t new ideas. They’ve always been your vehicle on the road into the unknown. But if you’re running low on gas, or want to try different fuel, think about filling your tank with improv. You’ll get great mileage. And the ride will be a lot more fun.
Sarah Holt is a Washington, D.C.-based improv and acting teacher, actress, and producer. Her role as a communications strategist includes positions at The Pew Charitable Trusts, Nickelodeon, and CBS. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahholt.