How we communicate with one another has changed enormously since the dawning of the Covid-19 crisis. Zoom is now a verb. As we’ve gained new skills on virtual platforms, there is a risk our face-to-face skills have declined. At the very least, many people have told me they feel less confident and more social gauche than they were before the lockdowns. So, as we go back to the office-part time, at least-it’s worth thinking about how you can freshen up your communication game. My world of improvisation offers some useful tools you can borrow. I often say that improv is yoga for your soft skills: if yoga makes your body more flexible, then improv does the same for your communication. So, let’s limber up!
- Focus on (really) listening.
I know what you’re thinking: listening? I’ve heard all this before. And you’re right, it’s hardly a new idea. But how many brilliant listeners do you know? Real attention is a scarce resource in an increasingly distracted world. While we’re often told we should listen, we aren’t always taught how. Often we aren’t really listening at all, we are just waiting to speak. Real listening is the willingness to be changed by what you’ve heard. And that means you’ve got to surrender control of the conversation.
- Take a ‘Yes, and’ approach.
How receptive are you to the ideas of others in conversations? Often our concern in meetings-whether consciously or not-is to show our status: to prove our expertise and experience in relation to the subject at hand. At work this often manifests as a need to be the smartest person in the room. This not only puts us under pressure, it means we can communicate inflexibly-without a collaborative mindset. Improvisers try to take what we call a ‘yes, and’ approach. This is about accepting and building off the ideas of others. Trying to make them look good, rather than competing with them.
On the one hand, this approach makes them feel important-therefore boosting the rapport and trust between you. On the other, it takes the burden off you: you don’t have to solve the problem or come up with the solutions all by yourself. What’s more, when you focus on the other person, you’ll find your anxiety lifts. As improv guru Jill Bernard once said, ‘If you’re stuck in your head, then you’ve got to get stuck in something else.’ That something else is the person right in front of you. A simple fix, but a powerful one.
- If you want to be fluent, be obvious.
Breaking the ice is something that we have to do all the time in the world of work. Whether that be with clients, with colleagues, or with our boss. It’s easy to feel tongue tied. But why does this situation fill us such dread? It’s because we often put pressure on ourselves to be interesting or ‘fun.’ And to do be so right away, straight off the bat. No wonder they make us anxious! Improvisers focus instead on being obvious. This means saying what is obvious to you in the moment. You’ll find not only does this get the conversation flowing, but that what is obvious to you is often not obvious to other people. So, you sound interesting by accident! Being obvious can be as simple as saying, ‘Your necklace is pretty.’ Your conversational partner can now react to this, (‘Oh this, yeah, I bought it last week,’) and you’re off. People who sound fluent in conversations are often just those people who let themselves be obvious.
Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classes, shows and corporate training.