In the summer I led a story-telling workshop for a bunch of 16–22 years olds. The plan was to help them become better communicators. This might have been one of my toughest crowds yet. My usual warm-up exercises didn’t work as well as they usually do and I saw that I had a struggle ahead of me. Normally, I start with an improvisation game I learnt in my acting years. For improvisation to work, you need two things:
These things were woefully absent and the culprit was the thing that sits in all our pockets or bags, or worse still is glued to our hands 24/7, distracting us with its never-ending concerto of pings, bings and whistles — our phones. Even when we’re not using them, the constant stream from social media with its artificial view of the perfect life reaches out from the screen long after it’s gone dark. This was what was holding my group back. I asked them to have fun and play, but they really struggled. I realised at that moment that they had been taken prisoner to a fake world created by their phones and social media where play is only OK if looks funky, failure is unacceptable unless it’s a hashtag, and there’s no such thing as “having a go” without a filter.
I pushed them hard and we eventually broke through to real moments of connection — my formerly shy, intimidated crowd came so far out of their shell that they will never fit back in! Abandoning the notion of digital perfection helped them rediscover the joy of what it is to be childlike and play.
I realised that if younger people can forget how to play and keep their brains engaged in the moment so easily, then we have no chance — especially in the workplace where we become slaves to our inboxes. So I urge you to ditch the digital in your next meeting or conversation and try these 3 and a ½ things to bring a bit of play to work.
I asked my group to pair up and do the following exercise:
Person A asks the question “Shall we go out on the town tonight”? Person B responds with a “Yes, but”. They agree to the offer but find a problem. Person A then continues the exchange with “Yes, but”. With each round communication gradually breaks down.
After a couple of minutes, we repeated the exercise and changed the “But” to “And”. It dramatically changed the story-line, the body language of the participants and the energy of the room. Whatever was set in front of them, they had to agree with. If Person A said “Can I have your house?”, Person B would have to respond with a “Yes and … take all my cats too!”. While no one needs to give up their house and cats, you can see how switching one word immediately gives you more freedom. This is where the play kicked in for our young group and it was a struggle. Surely they couldn’t just impulsively say yes and give things away without getting something in return? Total freedom can be painful and intimidating, especially in business. Most people are cautious “Yes but” people. If you can start to try and bring “Yes and” to your conversations wherever you can you will see collaboration, joy and work satisfaction increase.
In any conversation, there is a dialogue. Sometimes we shut that dialogue down because we’ve become uncomfortable or we didn’t get the answer we wanted. We disengage assuming we’ve lost the chance to achieve what we wanted. Don’t be too quick to throw the towel in! You can keep the dialogue going by letting the awkward moment pass while you search for another way to connect.
In Improv this where you push on with the “Yes and” approach, even when it seems to be failing. My group pushed through with more “Yes and” until they got a breakthrough. Think about how you might achieve your breakthrough when you hit a brick wall. It might be asking a question or, repeating back what someone has said to make sure you’ve understood them. It might be an alternative offer or way of looking at things These are all different forms of “Yes and” and allow you to continue a conversation.
Another exercise was a roleplay where one person was the boss and another, their subordinate. They both had a limited set of lines they could use in response to the questions they were being asked, as did the employee. The employee could only say “Did you get the numbers”? The boss could only say “I did not”. That was it. Everything else, anger, frustration, fear had to be expressed through these words and how they were delivered. Throw in the added Ingredient of ‘Status’ and you had a comedic show of epic proportions! When the boss had high status — i.e. was the one in the room with all the power he was standing on chairs, shouting down the employee. But when we switched status and the employee had all the power, she was throwing chairs, chasing the boss around the room, all with these limited words.
Limiting words mean you have you have to rely more heavily on body language, actions and tonality to express your thoughts and communicate your position or status. It’s easy to get verbal diarrhoea in meetings or crunch conversations. Try limiting your words to as few as possible and use your body language and tonality to help get your message across. Be brutal with your deck of slides, could you go with a strong image and headline on the slide and use your presence to communicate the rest? Focus on taking your audience on a journey with your body, and voice and you’re more likely to land your message in that moment.
And that all-important ½. If in doubt, keep offering something.
The blocks come when we feel we are at a dead end. For the Improv workshop, we used the “Yes and” technique to keep the conversation alive as well as repeating a question using different tones. There is always more to get out of a conversation. We can’t know where conversations will go. We can plan our approach but can’t know everything. So bear that in mind, even when you think you’ve given it everything. That little bit extra might just create space to play and open up the conversation to new opportunities.
Give these things a go next time you’re in a meeting or presentation and let me know how you get on? Does allowing some play help?