4 Insights From Improv That Will Improve Your Listening

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“Alright! Everyone circle up!”
“Alright! Half of you up there, the other half is the audience.”


For the past two weekends, I have heard these phrases numerous times. You see, I was taking my first ever (Level A) improvisation class over at Second City Toronto under the guidance of James Gangl. I initially took it to work on my presentation skills after reading a great post from Erika Napoletano about becoming a better public speaker. Shortly after the class started I realized there are a lot of parallels with both the art of mediation and the skill of listening. As James said in his opening words of the class, “Improv is the hardest team sport you will ever play.” What this means to me is that your performance will either succeed or fail depending on how well you listen to what your partner is saying.

Let Them Set You Up So You Can Knock Them Down

What you partner says or does within the scene is known as an offer. They may be crying, holding an object, washing the dishes, anything! There are endless amount of possible offers that your partner could make in order to keep the scene advancing so it’s up to you to listen, listen, and listen some more! Failure to do so will leave you with a pissed off audience and an even more pissed off partner. So pissed in fact, that they likely won’t want to play with you in the sandbox anymore (or anyone else for that matter). When you are listening and accepting the offers that your partner is throwing out to the world, they are setting up everything for you so you can knock them down…like a boss.

So What?

Think of every conversation that you have as an improv scene. When we’re listening to the person who we are in conversation with, we are setting up a scene. Everything the person says to you is an offer; an offer to comment, ask questions, seek advice, be understood, be supportive…you get the gist. The more we accept that person’s offers, the more we build up trust, rapport and relationship. So here are 4 things that I learned from improv that are going to help you accept other’s offers.

1. Be Attentive

Alright, you got me, I already knew this one, but you are going to fall flat on your face if you don’t pay attention. So clear those distractions, empty your mind, roll up your sleeves and get your listening on! There’s no time to wonder about your next move in life or who’s texting you in the middle of a conversation (unless that’s what the conversation is about of course…).

2. Use Your Ears, Eyes, and Gut

I’ve talked about both your eyes and ears to listen before, but haven’t really talked about using your gut. Your gut is important when you’re listening. Not only does your gut tell you when you’re hungry, but it also tells you when you have some sort of instinct or reaction to what is being said. Engage your gut to help you guide the questions you can ask and where you can bring the conversation to next.

3. Take Action

The most boring stories are the ones that go nowhere. Have you ever read a story where the main character sits in a restaurant and has pointless conversation about how the steak should be kept? No! Why? Because it doesn’t add anything to the story! It makes us tap our toes and look at our watches as we wonder where this story is going. Good listening moves the story ahead, it captures what has been said and moves the plot along so that we’re not stuck in restaurant purgatory.

4. Be Bold

Listening is risky business because once the person is done speaking, we need to find a way to capture the heartbeat of what they are saying to show that we are truly listening. Be bold in your interpretation, if you think they said something, then tell them! The worst thing they are going to do is tell you that you missed the beat and then tell you what the actual heartbeat was!

Sure, improv taught me a lot more about listening and mediation, but I’m going to save those for future posts in the upcoming weeks…so stay tuned!

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