Applied Improv Principles: Listening


In the article What is Applied Improv? I discussed seven principles of improv that apply in the work environment. Here I expand on the concept of "Listening" Listening is something we all do every day. In improv the concept of listening goes beyond hearing words that others are saying. Deeper listening involves letting go of your own ideas and being in the moment to take in what is being communicated. Instead, we are often waiting for a pause to insert our own ideas, using the time others are speaking to refine what we are going to say when they stop. Listening also absorbing holistically to how things are being said including gesture, inflection, expression, body-language, and vocal tone. In doing this we are seeking to understand the full meaning in it’s context.

Take a moment and recall the last conversation you had with someone. Could you tell their story to someone else? How much detail could you remember? How about the tone they used?

In fact when we are really connected we can listen for much more than the words. The next time you are hearing someone tell you their story, try to listen for all of these aspects:

  • Descriptive details (where, color, size, number, etc)
  • Tone of the story
  • Their emotion - how important is the story to them
  • Who is the story really about - usually one person primarily
  • What gestures do they use?
  • Vocal quality - loud, dynamic, whispered
  • What is their intent? - to persuade, convince, relate, validate, help, share?

The key is to focus on the other person instead of yourself, your own reaction, or what you are going to say. You may also have to put away your expectation of where they are going with it. Open yourself up to being surprised.

Applied Improv Principles: Making and Receiving Offers

In the article What is Applied Improv? I discussed seven principles of improv that apply in the work environment. Here I expand on the concept of "Making and Receiving Offers" An offer can be anything that you communicate. The definition is so broad that it is challenging to describe other than to say “everything is an offer”. Saying “hello” to someone on the street is an offer, opening your mouth to talk in a meeting is an offer, and putting forward an idea in that meeting is also an offer. Accepting offers means listening to them and making an offer in return in the spirit of “Yes, And”. In the examples above accepting the offers could be saying “hello” back, pausing and giving your attention to the person that wants to speak, and nodding and saying “interesting idea” to the person offering it in the meeting. Blocking those same offers might look like ignoring the greeting hello, talking louder and turning away to prevent another speaker, or replying to the idea offers with “yeah, right. moving on”. It stops the action, diminishes the offer and negates what has happened.

How many offers to you accept in a day? How many do you block? Often it's easier to block them, to keep going, to stick with the status quo. But in accepting offers you start to innovate, build, challenge yourself and others.

Take an inventory after your next meeting to see where you are on the accepting/blocking scale.

Applied Improv Principles: Storytelling is Collaboration

In the article What is Applied Improv? I discussed seven principles of improv that apply in the work environment. Here I expand on the concept of "Storytelling is Collaboration" As humans, we are natural storytellers. Much of how we communicate and think comes from telling stories to ourselves and others. Each story that we tell involves people, experiences and ideas that we have interacted with in our lives. (Sawyer, 2007) * In this way our stories are a collaboration with all of those elements that we have experienced. Bringing together the combined experiences of several people allow us to tell stories as a group with each person adding their own offers. A team solving a business problem in a group meeting is a story that might look something like this:

Once upon a time our product was constantly in demand, but sales have been down for a year, because of that we are looking at our customer feedback, because of that we see that updates to the product are needed, and now we can create a plan to roll out the new features. This summary story might take place over several meetings with many different people adding pieces to the story based on their experiences and ideas.


Collaboration means listening for those offers and accepting them in a way that makes your partner look good and builds on them by “Yes, and”ing them.

*Sawyer, Keith 2007. Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration

Applied Improv Principles: Celebrate Failure

Celebrate Failure (make mistakes boldly)

In the article What is Applied Improv? I discussed seven principles of improv that apply in the work environment. Here I expand on the concept of "Celebrate Failure and Survivable Risk".

Improv and collaboration require constantly taking risks of varying degrees. Mistakes and failure are inevitable as we engage in taking risks and it is our reaction to those failures that define the collaborative environment. In improv, we celebrate the risk-taking and embrace the failure which is counter to our natural tendency. This means that we are free to move forward boldly and without hesitation, censorship of ideas, and critique of ourselves or others. Celebrating failure unlocks creativity and gives us the freedom to explore alternatives and find elegance that might have been otherwise discarded.

Survivable Risk

The idea of celebrating failure seems to be counter to success or, worse, endorse thoughtless, careless or reckless behavior. The key principle is that we deal with survivable risks - failure as a result of dedicated effort with the intention of success. The idea is celebrating the risks involved with innovation. The nature of risk taking in any group or organization can range from personal risks of sharing your ideas and building relationships to trying new products or processes. It can be easy to discount, out of hand, the principle of celebrating failure with examples of reckless behavior such as betting all of the corporate assets on a game of roulette. Quick reactionary decisions without due care in the process may not be survivable risk for a company, leader or individual and therefore are not the intention behind this principle.

Applied Improv Principles: Make Your Partner(s) Look Good

In the article What is Applied Improv? I discussed seven principles of improv that apply in the work environment. Here I expand on the concept of "Making your Partner Look Good." Making your partner look good means listening, encouraging, and looking for ways to support what others are doing and is necessary for collaboration. It means suspending our tendency to make ourselves look good, and let go of competitive, adversarial and antagonistic behaviors that can be present in group dynamics. The good of the group is best served by everyone helping to push forward ideas.

Partner is a term that comes from acting and means your scene partner. When you apply the concept more widely in an applied improv setting it could be a co-worker, spouse, child, parent, boss, client, or the person who takes your ticket at the movies. In each case the way in which you can make them look good might be different, but the concept is the same. For here, I'll just say partner.

What makes your partner look good? Pointing out their mistakes publicly, sarcastic remarks, or silently letting them go down in flames in a meeting are all examples you may have seen that do NOT accomplish the goal. Look for ways to help them, have compassion, be graceful, let them off the hook, empathize. Even more than that you could turn it around, improve, build, expand, transform, or celebrate what they have done or said.

In the chapter on saying Yes in Improv Wisdom * by Patricia Ryan Madson. She suggests an experiment of looking for any way to say yes and build on the ideas and desires of the people around you. This is an excellent way of making them look good. Find the goodness in everything they do and tell them! Don't fake it - really search for the truth of the goodness. If you are open to it, you can find it.

* Madson, Patricia Ryan 2001. improv wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up