We made it to 2021. Do we get a reward? Extra gold coins for completing “level 2020“? Many are entering the new year not entirely unscathed. Each month of this past year ushered in new challenges that seemed to get progressively worse. Between a 100-year pandemic, major economic repercussions, nation-wide social unrest, devastating natural disasters, and extreme political division, anxiety has made itself comfortable in the minds of many at some point this past year.
While each of these events has triggered a different response, there has been an antidote that society collectively shared throughout the year – the coping and healing power of humor. In a study conducted by Stanford postdoc Andrea Samson and psychology Professor James Gross, subjects were asked to improvise jokes – either positive or negative – reinterpreting photos they were presented with before reporting their emotions on those images. The researchers found that subjects who made any kind of quip benefited, reporting both increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions. But those who were instructed to use positive humor saw the most effect. “If you are able to teach people to be more playful, to look at the absurdities of life as humorous, you see some increase in wellbeing,” said Samson.
If you have any social media accounts or family members with them, there is no way you escaped the onslaught of memes, comedy sketches, and skits that flooded the feeds of individuals across all platforms, reaching every demographic. Laughter and humor help us push through hard things. It’s not surprising then to learn that premier improv comedy groups like The Second City improv group offer classes to help individuals overcome anxiety in a number of situations. But why improv? The answer is found in the actual principle of improv – the ability to operate in a spontaneous and unplanned way, and confidence in dealing with the unknown. The goal of learning improv methodology isn’t about becoming funnier per se, but to feel more comfortable in uncomfortable, uncertain, or frightening situations.
Sounds like something many of us could benefit from in both our personal and professional lives. When you think about it, all relationships involve a constant act of improvisation. Each day you deal with unexpected scenarios and the results are not always funny. The problem becomes the paralyzing fear that is felt when you don’t know what to do next. As a result, we get stuck, which can cause self-inflicted harm as opposed to responding with spontaneity and confidence.
This is why improvisation has become such a focus in business today and why it is actually being integrated into some of the top business schools around the country. Improv is not just for comedians, it’s for effective business leaders – it’s for coping in unprecedented times – like 2020, for example. Having the ability to improvise with any given situation and work with those around you is an invaluable asset in your life. When individuals follow the elements of improv, they can generate ideas quickly and efficiently, make something out of nothing, and break down barriers preventing success.
How Is This Done?
The main idea of improv is this: accepting what is offered and adding to it. Any improv class you take will involve several others with whom you will interact with. Through a series of exercises and activities, you will come to recognize the importance of listening (to understand and not just reply), and accepting what others have contributed by not discounting it, but adding to it. That’s the energy you’ll feel when you watch a talented improv group; they work off each other and work toward a common goal – making the audience laugh – as a team.
The following are some fundamental elements of improvisation. Each one is as important as the other, just like in improv. They are:
- Yes, and… – Think about how often you use the phrase “Yes, but…” in your conversations with colleagues, friends, spouses…your children. It takes what was just said to you and stops it in its tracks. It discounts it with one word: “but.” Now replace “but” with “and” and see the dramatic shift that can occur. It accepts what was given and continues the conversation. Think about how our political discourse would change if this one principle was applied.
- Ensemble – Improv requires an ensemble, a team of individuals committed to working with each other for the same end-goals – each bringing a unique element to the group.
- Co-creation – Just as it is important to have a group of people for an ensemble, so is the need for each member to contribute and build off one another. Each person’s contribution is unique and may provide insights you hadn’t considered before…just like what you may add to another’s idea may elevate it in a way not previously thought of. Co-create and discover solutions you would have never found otherwise.
- Authenticity – Ensembles that co-create need unique viewpoints, experiences, and skills. They need honest – and respectful – input. They need each member to be authentic in what they contribute. This takes a certain level of vulnerability and trust – that those authentic contributions will be heard.
- Failure – Innovation breeds failure…until you succeed. Making mistakes means you’re trying…if you keep trying to figure out the right solution. Being willing to fail will free your creativity, allow you to throw out any and all ideas.
- Listening – Did you know, 85% of what we know is from listening? Out of the workday, 45% of it is spent listening, but only 25% is comprehended. Being a more effective listener is essential to improvising. Listen to understand, not just to say what’s on your mind. Successful improv listens intently to the person(s) in the conversation and adding to that message, not starting an unrelated thought.
These elements all support the central idea of improv, which is this: accepting what is offered and adding to it. It essentially teaches that everyone’s input matters and is valuable. Imagine how our perspective of the world and the events around us would change if we remembered this. This explains why the traits of a good improviser are the same as those of a decent human being:
- Listens to others
- Agrees and supports
- Respects those around them
- Doesn’t fear failure
- Exudes positive energy
- Comfortable being silly
Learned improvisation techniques in life can change how you experience the world around you and increase your ability to overcome problems with greater innovation, creativity, and confidence. Improv and a healthy dose of humor allow you to approach challenges with encouragement and positivity as opposed to fear, doubt, and negativity. It’s a new year, with new challenges on the horizon; consider leveraging improv techniques to increase your ability to cope, overcome, and succeed in the year ahead.