Yes, I’m biased. I’m a former theatre guy.As I rummage through old office files, I stumble on an article about improvisation that I saved a few years back. It hails from the unlikely pages of The Wall Street Journal (7/8/2016). Starting at a very early age, most of us are taught to master impulse control. It’s what successful grown-ups do, right? We manage our emotions. Avoid distraction. Aim for a zen-like focus, a sense of control. Squelch our impulses, avoid distraction.Enter improvisation.The art of intentionally surrendering to impulse.At Second City in Chicago, the improv comedy troupe that has launched the careers of celebrities like Jim Belushi and Tina Fey, scientists and engineers and nurses and psychologists now practice the art of impulse surrender. It’s been a total change from left-brain attorney to right-brain class-taker, says Second City student and retired attorney Irv Levinson. In an episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer recovers from giving a disastrous speech by taking an improv class. Yes, improvisation has left the theatre vault.There is a place for impulse control, of course. I, for example, can easily swing toward sarcasm in conversation. When left unchecked, it rarely serves me well. I am a better person when I stay mindful of this impulse and let it pass.Many brilliant gifts reveal themselves, however, when we relax our conscious control just a bit. These gifts are subtle and delicious, and they have the potential to elevate any business conversation we have.
We consume language as if were fast food. Taste-less, quickly discarded, instantly forgotten. We babble without paying attention to linguistic nuance. Improv reminds us that at our best, we are consciously creating a conversation, moment by moment, word choice by word choice.It begins by truly hearing the words that come our way. Explicitly picking up on those cues in our response. Choosing words that are distinct and unexpected. Surprising perhaps. When this is done well, we actually tend to call it word play. Nice, right?
Every moment in time has pace, velocity, stasis or momentum. Improv training sharpens our ability to sense these dimensions. It helps us tune into the energy of a person, a group of people, or a moment. We feel it, and we consciously merge with that energy, subvert it or expand it. We start to revel in the unspoken dynamics of a conversation, and we have the courage to playfully mold them. It’s as richly liberating as it sounds. We simple need to “tune in” and notice.
In our linearly prejudiced world, we are programmed to avoid tangents like the plague. Detours are considered sacrilegious. Improv gives us shameless permission to investigate any cue, linear or not. It knows that a detour is often more illuminating and insightful than the predetermined or well-rehearsed path.A detour is the expression of an impulse that, for whatever reason, shows itself. It implores us to not simply give the answer(s) we think others wish to hear but to follow, instead, the thought that yearns to be expressed. Way cool, right?
Great improvisers don’t simply spout funny stuff and or do silly things. They seize an impulse and create meaning in split-seconds. They have trained their meaning-antennas in improv class. They note implicit or emerging meaning, seize it, blow it up, shape it into a story.A key leadership skill for any corporate leader is the ability to articulate meaning. It’s easy to offer pre-packaged meaning. We carefully plan our meaning messages in advance. Advance planning is encouraged, of course! But how much more resonant it is when we notice the meaning that actually emerges in a moment! Notice it, name it and claim it. Stirring, right?Wanna transcend basic transactional competence in your daily endeavors? Well, you may not be able to take a course at Second City, but you can sure as heck practice a little bit of impulse surrender every day.It doesn’t mean simply “going with the flow.” It means consciously shaping the impulses you notice in a moment. Words. Energy. Thoughts. Meaning.Conscious impulse surrender helps us to stay more fully present. It’s also great fun. And we you practice it more often, more experiences of flow will show up.And that really IS way way cool.