Can Improv Help You Coach Your Team?

Can Improv Help You Coach Your Team?

Until a few weeks ago I never thought of connecting improv theater techniques, like what you might see on the show Whose Line is It Anyway? to coaching a team member.

That changed when I listened to Alan Alda read his book If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face? . In this book Alda describes how he uses improv basics to teach scientists, professors, and doctors to relate and communicate better with their audiences, investors, students, and patients.

Before I share how you might progress through a coaching session, let’s look at a few improv basics.

Improvisation Basics. Alda says the first lesson in improv is to get a feel for where the other person is starting. He says this is the most common mistake we all make when we start communicating with someone – we assume the other person is in the same starting place – and we are usually wrong.

Therefore, I am curious what you know! So last week when I was talking with a younger colleague, who is also a reader, I asked her if she knew who Alan Alda was? She looked at me with a shy smile and said, “no.”

I’m glad I asked her because I assumed everyone knew Alan Alda.  So, Dear Reader, let me introduce him. He is best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the 1970s television hit M*A*S*H and has won many acting and directing awards. Later in the 1990s he was the narrator of the wonderful PBS show Scientific American Frontiers. And, after his Scientific American experience, he has spent years helping many professions learn to communicate more effectively. He is the inspiration behind The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

Three Goals of Improv. Alda writes that the three goals of improv interaction are – 1) Making eye contact, 2) Being able to quickly respond to the other person’s emotions, and 3) To relate to the person with a higher level of resonance.

In the book he describes exercises used by improv professionals and I hope to try some soon. If you are interested in learning more, Alda recommends studying information from Viola Spolin, the guru of improv. (Here is a link to her game site.) If you want to watch improv games in action, try watching three of Vicky Saye Henderson’s improv videos – here is a link to Part 1 – each is 15-18 minutes in length.

Improv Goal Tip #1 – Make Eye Contact. Alda writes about the importance of reading the other person’s emotions and state of mind. In improv you practice doing this first by reading the other person’s eyes for emotion. There are several improv games that help people learn this. If you want to know how well you read someone’s eyes, Alda recommends you try this quiz. (I scored a very average 26 out of 36 my first time.) After you take the quiz you can practice reading eyes and within your own mind try to guess the emotion of the other person. Then, Alda suggests, try the quiz again in a few months to see if you improve.

Improv Goal Tip #2 – Quickly Respond with “Yes, and…”. A law school professor friend of mine connected me to the writings of Bill Mordan, an attorney from the Association of Corporate Counsel and Shire and also an improv actor. Mordan occasionally comes into her class to teach law students the basics of improv. In a recent article Mordan wrote about how Tina Fey in her book Bossypants says the first rule of improv is to accept whatever your partner says and then add to it. Both she and Alda were trained to say, “Yes, and…” when you then add to what the other person says.

Fey writes, “If I start a scene with ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you say, ‘Yeah…’ we’re kind of at a stand-still. But if I start a scene with ‘I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,’ and you say, ‘Yeah, what do you expect? We’re in hell…’ now we’re getting somewhere.”

 Improv Goal Tip #3 – Relate with Other Person by Using Inquisitive Skills. Begin conversations believing you know very little about the situation, be ignorant, and maintain curiosity by asking questions to learn more. Whether you are acting or in a conversation, Alda writes that this combination of ignorance and curiosity naturally builds a resonance between two people. Very soon you are “so aware of the other person that, even if you have your back to them, you’re observing them.”

If your personal goal is to develop your Connector Manager-Coach skills, try to keep in mind a few of these improv tips when you start a coaching session.

The Coaching Session. At the beginning of my last article I introduced you to my senior banking officer friend, who talked to me about coaching a junior loan officer. So, imagine you are the banking officer, Paul, and you are going into a coaching session with his loan officer, Jacob. Paul’s concern is that Jacob is a young commercial loan officer with nice potential, but who is not finding larger loan customers and not taking responsibility for some things he should. You, Paul, know you want to mostly listen to Jacob, so you decide to use questions that help build your relationship with him, help Jacob develop professionally, and affirm Jacob ’s value to the team.

Here are the four parts of a coaching session and a few questions you might ask.

  • Opening relational questions – This is very simple and most of us do this all the time. Ask Jacob an open-ended question about him or his life. Something like, “You told me your daughter had a dance recital last weekend, how did she do?” Using the improv tip, watch and record in your brain his facial or eye expressions to understand the emotion Jacob is feeling as he talks to you. Understanding how Jacob feels about your question gives you insight into how to relate to him in the future.
  • Problem-framing questions – Shift next to the part of the conversation where you want to explore the weakness or problem area more deeply. In Jacob’s case, Paul wants to explore why Jacob has not been able to solicit larger loan customers. Paul should remember that Jacob is likely not starting at the same place as Paul, so he should start with some context that also addresses “why” the problem topic is important. Then ask the first question that both engages Jacob and validates him.
    1. “As you know, Jacob, a goal of our commercial loan team is to add 12 larger loan customers this year. Because a larger customer requires about the same time, or even less, to service than a small customer, they add more profit. As you know we have only added three and we are halfway through the year. I wanted to talk with you about this goal and see how you can help our team achieve it.”
    2. Q1 – “The Beaker Company account you developed has been an awesome addition, tell me again how you developed this?” (This helps validate Jacob’s value to the team. Paul should listen and write-down specific positive behaviors Jacob mentions that could be replicated by him and the team.)
    3. Q3 – “I know you also tried to develop the Jackson Company account, but they chose another bank, share with me what happened with them and what you think we could learn?” (Notice the subtle shift away from him to “we”.)
  • Follow-up questions – As Jacob responds to the above questions, opportunities for follow-up questions emerge. These questions are where improv training can pay-off because they cannot be pre-planned and are asked in the moment. Maintain eye contact to assess Jacobs emotions and stay curious to learn more. These are usually “how,” “what” and “why” questions that help Jacob understand what he did well and could replicate and also learn some things he could do differently going forward.
    1. During this portion of the development session Paul should write down key points that he believes Jacob should address during the closing portion of the session at which time Jacob writes down his “next steps.”
    2. As Tim Brown, the CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, suggests consider asking a follow-up question that starts “how might we…?”
  • Closing-next steps questions – The goal of this section is for Jacob to write down his next steps or objectives. Paul might use the improv question “Yes, and…” during this portion of coaching session.
    1. Jacob, what do you think are three or four actions you can take next to help our team land several larger customers?
    2. Yes, and…you mentioned you met Mr. Beaker through one of your college friends, have you connected with this college friend to see if he has other contacts?
    3. Yes, and…by what date will you be able to do this action or that action?
    4. Yes, and…what other training do you think would be helpful to you?
    5. Yes, and…will you please invite me or our President to go on any potential business visits if you think we can be helpful?

If you have had improv training I’d like to invite you to make coaching suggestions on this Blog site by starting your comment, “Yes, and…”

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