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A little improv could go a long way toward improving civic life for all of us

The key to “zany” improv games is being a deep listener; a good collaborator, and an open, generous and free thinker. In short, it brings out the best in us.

Although we often associate it with being quick with a joke or physical gag, improv is, above all else, about listening.

A spate of recent articles in places like Inc. Magazine and Slate have heralded the benefits of improv theater for business professionals. It’s not a new idea; here in Minnesota, folks like Stevie Ray have been sharing the good news of improv comedy with corporate groups for decades.

tane danger portrait
Tane Danger

Bringing improv into the business world makes perfect sense. Improv is about collaboration and imagination. It’s an art that demands free thinking and being open to virtually endless possibilities.

Many of the articles have focused on one of improv’s foundational principles, the concept of “Yes, and …” These two magic words push improvisers to embrace each other’s ideas and help them grow. It is as powerful off-stage as it is in the theater. Imagine if more workplaces had a culture of saying “Yes, and …” to new ideas, rather than “No,” or the dreaded, “Yes, but …”

In the spirit of “Yes, and …” let me take the good points in those articles about using improv to help businesses be more successful and go a little further. Improv can do a lot more than make us creative worker bees.

Improv can help us approach all types of problems more openly. It can train us to be better listeners and collaborators. It can help us be better citizens and leaders. In short, improv can help us be more engaged, connected human beings.

How can playing some “zany” improv games make us better people? Consider the heart of improvisation.

Deep listening

Although we often associate it with being quick with a joke or physical gag, improv is, above all else, about listening. The best improvisers I’ve seen are the ones who listen deeply, not just to what their scene partner is saying but also to everything that isn’t being said: the nonverbal communication, how the audience is responding, and for opportunities to move the story.

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Imagine if more of our civic and political discourse was based on that kind of listening. What if we made our primary focus hearing what others were saying, where they’re coming from, what they’re not saying (and why), and how everything communicated is being interpreted? What if it were less about getting our own message out, and more about trying to understand where that message fits in a larger narrative?

Improv is about being a generous partner. When a student asks me what the “trick” to being a great improviser is, I tell them there isn’t one. Then I tell them their best bet is to do everything they can to make their scene partners look great. If everyone is working to make everyone else successful on stage, chances are that everyone actually will succeed.

A powerful tool

That mindset would be a radical shift from how a lot of politics works now. It requires a lot of trust that whoever you’re working with will support you. If we could get there in public life, the possibilities are endless. If we all approached big problems looking to help make each other’s solutions be the best they could be, rather than tearing them down before they even get out of the gate, my guess is that a lot more of them would actually succeed.

Which brings me back to those magic words, “Yes, and …” It is a shortcut to building up each other’s ideas, collaborating, and finding a way forward that no one person could have imagined alone. This powerful tool for innovation can do at least as much good for addressing big civic issues as it does for corporate brainstorming. If we embraced “Yes, and …” we would fundamentally shift from fights and impediments, to a focus on possibility.

Improv can bring a lot to a business. And it can bring a lot to our politics and civic lives. Let’s find new ways to be imaginative and collaborative in both arenas.

Tane Danger is the co-founder and host of The Theater of Public Policy which uses improv comedy theater to unpack and re-imagine big issues and serious questions. You can follow him on Twitter at @TaneDanger.


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