Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and performance science. Grace writes a regular column on happiness & leadership for WRAL TechWire.

I am a believer in the teacher also being the student.   That’s why I signed up for an improv intensive this past weekend.  If I am to bring in improv to my clients to help them build stronger teams  (Improv & you: don’t underestimate its power to motivate), I have to experience it regularly too.

Today I share 7 takeaways from my weekend improv workshop:

Mistakes are good!

They actually draw the audience in more to us. Instead of worrying about having the perfect line, sometimes fumbles are the most funny. They make us human and more relatable to the audience.

Being too perfect or being too formal at work, makes it harder for our colleagues to relate to us.  Opening up and sharing personal stories and vulnerabilities makes us better teammates.

Listening is the best preparation

We had a lot of “circle” activities, where we would have prompts for each of us to answer while standing in a circle.  Our human tendency is to focus on what we will say when our turn comes up, instead of listening to our colleagues in the moment.

If instead, we actively listen and then “improv” it when our turn comes up, we deliver the most appropriate punch lines, as we build on what our partners are saying.

Sprinkle in callbacks

Our teacher encouraged us to have “callbacks,” that is, to refer back to concepts in earlier skits to tie all our scenes together. This definitely requires active listening to remember past scenes and then integrate them into the current scene to create cohesion, and in some cases, laughs.  This also acknowledges the earlier work of a fellow improviser.

When I was a student at Harvard Business School, this was a key part of making good grades.  We were expected to synthesize and build on our classmates’ comments when we shared ours.  The skill of synthesizing effectively required thoughtful listening.

Grace Ueng's improv class

Grace Ueng’s improv class

Eye contact is underrated

At one point, our teacher encouraged us to look at our audience when we spoke instead of looking down into our lap.  Eye contact allows us to see their reaction, their emotions, and build from there. It also creates much more of a human connection, which drives a positive reaction.

The greatest gift a teacher or boss can give their student or employee is to hold their space and that can be done by making direct eye contact while listening.

‘Yes and’ creates excitement

The classic tenet of improv is to practice “yes, and” instead of “yes, but” to build on your fellow actor’s comment.

In one of our exercises, our teacher had us elevate our voice each round and encouraged that we also stand up as our scene unfolded.  Thinking on our feet and having more energy in our vocal projection showed how our enthusiasm easily became contagious.

Would you rather have a boss who passionately states the next step of an idea you bring forth, or one that finds fault and asks too many questions?

Simple is best

The funniest punchlines were short and sweet, and often unexpected.

Stick together, get better together

One of our exercises was entitled Mr. Know It All, when the audience asks a question and three people, sitting side by side, answer by each person saying one word of the answer in rounds until some semblance of an answer is complete.  As you can imagine, this often results in funny, nonsensical answers and sometimes answers that actually make sense.

One student asked, “would a trio of improvisers that sticks together get better over time?”

Our teacher said, “Well…I would hope so!”  then explained that is why her improv troupe that she performed in for twenty years, would practice weekly.  Some people would ask her why they practiced since they were improvisers.  She said that they would be better actors when they knew each other better and practiced the act of improving more together.

When my clients participate in improv, they get to know each other better, open up, listen more, and then go on to practice “yes, and” in real corporate life.

Gift of listening and not multitasking

I can’t emphasize enough the power of improv in helping us be better listeners.  In an earlier column I shared additional ways to become a better listener (Has anyone ever told you that you could listen better?)

I refer in that column to how science shows that multitasking is a myth, that we can focus well on only one task at a time.

I worked with an executive who was constantly multitasking when meeting with his team to the point where it was mentioned by his colleagues in his 360 review. One recent study showed the effect of multitasking on performance was similar to driving impaired.

Another one of his colleagues said that his conversation was somewhat robotic. By listening better (stopping the multitasking!) and making eye contact (instead of looking at emails), one can become a better conversationalist, build on what the other is saying, and create contagious excitement.

Applications for this week:

Ask your team if you are a good listener. Ask how you can be a better listener.

When you catch yourself multitasking, put away the other task, remembering your performance is downgraded by doing two things at once.  You are NOT saving time and in fact, not getting the most out of your main task.

This week, audit if you have a tendency to say “yes, but.”  Ask a colleague to monitor.

In our workshop, even when we were given explicit directions to “yes, and,” many of us immediately said “but…”  Human nature is to have a negativity bias. Humans were created as such to protect ourselves from our earliest days as hunter, gatherers.  We must fight it and “yes, AND” instead.

About Grace Ueng

A management consultant, leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth, Grace has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., and MIT Technology Review.  Leaders call her when seeking a strategic review of their business, when going through a pivot point, or when they’d like to have a thinking partner to hold them accountable to stretch goals.

Her company offers workshops to improve team effectiveness: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn.

Join her Happiness & Leadership community to be more productive leader: click here