How Improv Comedy Improves Conversations at Work

Conversations at work can often feel more like political debates and battles between egos. People with strong points of view argue and debate without anyone moving toward solutions or common goals.
Collaboration is difficult when conversations are competitive. Instead of dialoging together, co-workers try to outdo each other. Without fully listening, people are forming their own thoughts, just waiting their turn to jump in.
A common response to new ideas is often “No,” or “Yes, but…” followed by, “That wouldn’t work and I’ll tell you why.”
What if we could improve conversation skills so that everyone—supervisors, team leaders or individuals-may connect more by engaging in creative, collaborative dialogue? Instead of debating differences and promoting our own opinions, the discussions would be supportive, friendly and fun.
Here’s a suggestion: Simply replacing “No” with a response of “Yes, and…” can make all the difference. This conversational rule comes from improvisational theater. The way improv comedians are trained turns out to be excellent for improving conversations at work as well.
The First Rule of Improv Comedy
Second City Works has been offering training to organizations for decades now because the same skills required for comedians on stage are also effective for companies.
Improvisational training improves people’s ability to process on the fly, relinquish power struggles, create space for everyone to contribute, and learn how to learn from failure. People use the rules of improv to increase their capacity for innovation, creativity and confidence.
In the book Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City, by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, the authors describe how the same improv skills used to create funny scenes can also improve emotional intelligence, increase creativity, and teach you to pivot out of tight and uncomfortable situations.
Improv comedians share the common goal of a lasting interaction and a deep connection with their co-players and the audience. Above all else, players aim for flow. When you think about it, these are similar goals required of people working together in business today.
At work, conversations can feel awkward, people aren’t sure how to respond, or they walk away without understanding or connecting with a person. The rules for improv can help you:

  • Eliminate awkward silences
  • Help make conversations flow smoothly
  • Listen better
  • Connect more deeply without effort

Great conversations don’t always appear spontaneously; you’re not always on the same wavelength as your partner. You can’t use a script or list questions to ask.
In improv comedy, participants collaborate and support everyone, working towards a common goal. Players need to be flexible and carefully listen and observe the other person.
They don’t come on stage with expectations about where the scenario should end up. They watch for emotional signals and respond to everything presented, both non-verbally and verbally. Great conversations are created in the same way.
When you have a set agenda, you don’t listen or observe. If you are constantly debating, arguing, selling or trying to change minds, you can’t create a feeling of likeability and collaboration.
When people try to control the flow of conversation they miss out on important clues to what others are really thinking. Here is the first rule of improv comedy that you can apply to work conversations.
Rule # 1: “Yes, and…”
This is the first rule of improv: no matter what the other person says, you must respond with “Yes, and…” in order to build and expand the conversation. The key here is to accept what’s said — regardless of what you may think of it — and to add to it. It’s absolutely foundational to improv.
We can understand why. When someone responds with “No,” or “Yes, but…” it shuts down the scene and it’s not funny. The same thing happens at work. Responding to another with “Yes, and…” is an easy concept to understand — but in actual practice it’s hard to commit to doing.
It requires you to trust that others will support and build upon your contribution and it requires you to do the same for them. In business, support is almost always highly conditional.

  • “I’ll support you as long as I know where this idea is going.”
  • “I’ll support you as long as success is guaranteed.”
  • “I’ll support you as long as there’s something in it for me.”

People don’t like giving up control of the conversation. And yet it’s only when you trust enough to let it happen that surprising innovations happen.
Obviously not every idea is a good idea and there is a time and place for using “Yes, and…” There are times when people have to be told “No.”
Yet too often “No” is the default response to everything. It’s offered as a way to avoid risk and possible failure. It results in customer dissatisfaction, employee disengagement, and lack of innovation.
Responding with “Yes, and…” is a skill that’s useful in deepening interpersonal relationships, teamwork, feedback, brainstorming, conflict resolution, sales negotiations and problem solving.
Saying “Yes, and…” gives conversations energy and forward momentum. It gives people confidence to speak up and participate at their best. It allows individuals and groups to bring their finest selves to a conversation and get the top ideas into the room.

Communicating Better: 4 Social Signals

Successful people are great communicators who recognize that conversations are part of an evolving social process. They aren’t just skilled listeners; they’re attuned to subtle social signals that are more revealing than words alone — and they use them to their advantage.
We’re more connected than ever before. The ability to reach out and communicate with people around the globe has never been more accessible. But are we paying attention to key signals that improve our understanding?
Ten years ago, half of humanity had never made a phone call, and only 20 percent had regular access to communications. Today, 70 percent can place a phone call or send a text message. Almost every stratum of society is now connected.
But if we look at unproductive meetings, failed sales pitches, fruitless negotiations and emails that spark firestorms, it’s easy to see that we’re not always skilled communicators. Despite technological advances in communication, our ability to detect social context has deteriorated.
Fifty years of research reveals that words play only a small role in conveying meaning. Facial and other nonverbal expressions are larger contributors. And over the last decade, scientists have found that social signals are a significant, yet largely unexplored, communication channel.
Social Channels 
Social communication channels profoundly influence our major decisions, even though we’re usually unaware of them. These signals are produced unconsciously, so they’re supremely honest. As Alex Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab explains in his book, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World:
Honest Signals comes from a new and emerging science, called network science, that tries to understand people in the context of their social networks rather than viewing them as isolated individuals… Recent advances in wireless communications and digital sensors have made it now possible to observe natural, everyday human behavior at a level of detail that was previously unattainable. 
Measuring Social Signals
We unconsciously communicate with one another. Even before we utter a word, we intuit how others feel.
Researchers are now using sensing technology (sociometers) to detect key signaling behaviors — including activity levels, mimicry, synchrony, pace and physical distance — in face-to-face conversations.
Pentland and his MIT colleagues developed the sociometer, which was further perfected by Ben Waber and fellow MIT alumni who founded Sociometric Solutions. The device is worn around the neck like an ID badge, and it captures tone of voice, activity level and location. While it does not record actual words, it can detect and/or measure:

  • • Who you talk to, how often and for how long
  • • Whether two speakers are face to face or turned away from each other
  • • An interaction’s energy level
  • • Levels of engagement

We may not perceive these social signals unless we’re looking for them. When we do become aware of them, they provide a very effective window into people’s intentions, goals and values. Using the sociometer, scientists can accurately predict the outcomes of social situations, job interviews and even salary negotiations.
Effective communicators are more sensitive to social signals, using them to more fully understand social context and influence. They pay careful attention to signal patterns within their social networks, harvesting individual members’ knowledge and capturing the “wisdom of the crowd” to improve performance, decision-making and project management.
Four Key Social Signals
“If we watch the give-and-take of conversational turn-taking and gesturing, and carefully measure the timing, energy, and variability of the interaction, we can find several examples of honest signals.” ~ Alex Pentland
Pentland’s research reveals four key honest signals that can be effectively measured: influence, mimicry, activity and consistency.
How can we detect how much influence we’re having in a conversation?
Answering this question can help us negotiate a salary, make a sales pitch or score a promotion.
Influence is particularly important for leaders charged with persuading others. It’s an indicator of dominance. Studies of negotiations confirm that the person who holds the floor has an advantage (to a point).
Controlling the pace of a conversation allows us to influence its outcome. We can speed or slow our speech, varying the pace by milliseconds. We can create or eliminate gaps in conversation. These tiny time variations are perceived by others’ conscious minds only indirectly (as intuitions). Our conversation partners can tell that we’re insistent, highly attentive and invested in directing the flow of conversation.
Can you remember a time when you were called on the carpet by an angry supervisor? The boss likely raised his voice, rapidly fired questions at you and demanded explanations, yet cut you off before you could finish speaking. You felt pushed and pinned down by the barrage of words. The boss, clearly dominating the interaction, used these “verbal pushing” techniques to control — and influence the outcome of — the conversation.
Sales pitches and other attempts to persuade others are more moderate examples of influence. Variations in verbal pace are so fleeting that they’re imperceptible through conscious processing. We intuit that the other person is insistent, paying keen attention and interested.
We use our influence to assess others’ attitudes and interest level. In one study of 46 salary negotiations, researchers found that those who controlled conversation patterns were perceived as the influential parties.
We mirror our conversation partners automatically and unconsciously. The mirror neurons in our brains hardwire us to copy smiles, interjections, head nodding, and vocal timing and pitch. Some of us mimic more than others. Salespeople are often trained to use mimicry as a tactic, but customers can usually tell when this wholly natural tendency is exaggerated or faked.
Mirroring behaviors increase the degree to which conversational partners like and trust each other. Unconscious and authentic mimicry is a sign of empathy that can actually improve negotiation results by 20 to 30 percent. No other factor in financial interactions proves to be as effective.
The amount of energy we invest in a conversation signals our interest and attention. Excitement is therefore an honest signal. Even when we try to be smooth and subdued, outward signs of nervous activity will emerge. We fidget, talk quickly and gesture when we’re sincerely interested in a topic and the conversation’s potential outcome.
When two people are exploring the possibility of a relationship, they signal interest in each other with rising activity levels. When observing speed-daters, social scientists can accurately predict which women will provide their phone numbers, based solely on activity levels during these brief encounters. The same applies to other social interactions and business networking.
Whenever two people gesture and talk energetically, the odds are very good that they’ll trade contact information to further their relationship. Conversation partners seem to know this intuitively and can sense when to follow up.
How can we apply this in business? If you’ve ever had a conversation that lacked energy, you know there’s a problem. Solve it by finding a topic that interests the other person. Ask questions that give you insights into what your conversation partner values. You’ll further the relationship when you raise your partner’s activity level.
Consistency refers to the variability of your speech and movements during a conversation.
When you’re focused, your speech and movements are smooth and regular. When you experience multiple simultaneous thoughts or emotions, your speech becomes jerky, unevenly accented and paced. Consistency is a measure of mental focus, while greater variability may signal an openness to influence from others.
If you have to process thoughts, you may hesitate and slow down. But when you’re sure and convinced, you speak with smooth confidence and without variability.
Researchers have found that consistency in emphasis yields better results in salary negotiations and business pitches. But consistent emphasis is not always a good thing. While it indicates focus and determination, it’s the opposite of what you want as a listener or helper. In studies of sales inquiries, researchers found that variability in emphasis, coupled with amount of listening time, accurately predicted a sales call’s success or failure.
Variability and pace signal your openness to others’ contributions, while consistency indicates you’ve made up your mind.
Better Leadership Communication
Successful people and effective leaders do more than just listen. They recognize that observing patterns of unconscious social signaling offers a window into a group’s dynamics. They can detect when a group is moving toward problems like groupthink or polarization.
Language and arguments matter, of course, but sometimes they matter surprisingly little. We’re not as rational as we’d like to believe. If you’re not reading the social signals, you may be missing out on important information.
Our conscious and unconscious communication channels are likely to be enmeshed and intertwined. The successful communicator can pick up and elaborate on interaction patterns and help groups function more effectively.
Unfortunately, we tend to over-rely on digital exchanges, but memos and emails are no match for face-to-face contact. Most of us recognize this fact. Perhaps video technology will overcome some of technology’s inherent problems.
Always remember that communication is socially situated. The more we recognize that discussions are not limited to words and part of a larger social dialogue, the more successfully we’ll work together.