Say What You Mean

In improv, we don’t hide things from ourselves. We don’t hide things from our scene partners. While this relates to physical behavior on stage (I don’t pretend I didn’t steal your wallet if I did it) it is more relevant to emotions. I don’t deny my feelings. And I don’t make my scene partner guess how I am feeling.

A common exercise for improvisers is “I Love You, I Hate You” (instructions below). It focusses on repeating a feeling so that we truly live that emotion. In actual practice during a show, this gets turned into telling you how I am feeling, explaining and rationalize my feelings. I don’t make you guess. I am mad at you because you woke me up when you came in late. I love you for starting the coffee. You make me sad that you can’t even spellcheck your powerpoint. All of these provide meaningful details.

So what does this have to do with Collaboration at Work?

Simply, SAY WHAT YOU MEAN. Practicing improv, I have shifted from a question-first to goal-first or motivation-first approach to communication. What does this look like? Let’s take the conversation planning a design workshop. I could ask

Why are we starting with a service journey exercise?

Which may put my colleague on the defensive, and lacks context to why I am asking this question. A goal- or motivation-first approach though could be more effective. Take for instance:

In my experience service journeys take a little more education. I want to make sure the participants are aligned. Do we need a goal-setting exercise?

Yes, this is longer. And I am usually all about brevity. But this addresses a few key things:

  1. My colleague is less likely to be on the defensive and more likely to be engaged in a common-solution
  2. I am not hiding my motivations or making my colleague guess why I am asking a question
  3. I am yes-anding their suggestion. I am not saying NO to a service journey, and yes-and does not imply agreement. I am adding to it with the goal-setting exercise

Let’s look at another example where we discussing a sales pitch to a client. Let’s assume the meeting did not go as planned. I could ask:

I thought this was a kickoff and the work was already agreed to?

This again, puts my colleagues on the defensive. They might feel they need to rationalize their perspective or tell me I was wrong. If instead I start with a motivation-first approach:

In my notes I understood the client had bought into the engagement. Today illustrated we have ambiguity. Can you help me understand what changed?

Here, we are starting with I-statements, not blaming anyone but seeking to understand. We are starting with my perception and opening the opportunity to learn what conversations I may have missed.

So what does this mean for how we collaborate? Often conflict resolution is based around I-statements, saying what you feel and what you need, and identifying common ground. This is the same with improv and the same with collaborating in the workspace.

Focus less on being right. Focus less on communicating your emotion, and focus more on communicating the source, or root, of your emotion/perspective. None of us are mind readers and by vocalizing the reason for our perspectives we can more efficiently find a shared understanding.

I Love You, I Hate You

Two players start in the opposite corners of a room. Silently, each person chooses a phrase to say for the exercise. The two choose independently and the choices do not need to be the same. Choose from:

  • I love you
  • I hate you
  • I fear you
  • You make me sad

Now, person A says their line of choice, followed by a step towards the center of the room.

Person B then says their line and takes a step forward.

Person A and Person B alternate repeating their same line, adding emotion and inflection naturally until they are a step from one another. The exercise concludes with the Players making a physical reaction to the other person that illustrates their emotion.

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