The hidden benefits of impro

Lots of people talk about the benefits of improvisation in design, so I decided to give it a try - and boy am I glad I did. Talk about heaps of fun, lots of challenges, and a great feeling of achievement. I learnt much more than I expected and particularly enjoyed observing and discussing the social dynamics and flows in most games.

I have just finished impro #1 and I liked it so much I enrolled in impro #2 through Impro Australia - straight away.

Monday night Impro - Sydney Community college - March 2015

Monday night Impro - Sydney Community college - March 2015

Positively neutral

I was hoping impro would help me get better at being ‘positively neutral’ in research interview situations. By positively neutral I mean being encouraging, without making a value judgement.

For example, using eye contact, body language and the most minimal of verbal feedback to encourage participants to expand on what they are saying, and to make them feel comfortable and more likely to share, but without rewarding what I was expecting to hear or subtly steering away from what I was not expecting or not liking. 

The one ‘rule’ of impro, that is to accept all offers, was a great way for me to practice this. It is something I have been practicing in other professional and social interactions in addition to research situations. 

Observing and talking about how people communicate

One of the things that I am really liking about improvisation is that it creates an opportunity to talk about how people work and how they communicate. This is something that fascinates me. I can spend hours just watching and listening to people - but not everyone shares my desire to pick apart the subtleties of human interaction. Yay to impro that normalises and even encourages this kind of delving :)

Some of the things I noticed:

  • Disagreeing is much easier than agreeing
  • Positioning is compulsive - is this a status thing? Power or protection?
  • Listening is hard - especially under real or perceived pressure

Disagreeing is much easier than agreeing

I noticed that it is much easier to reject than to accept an offer. To illustrate this point, pretty early on we played a game in pairs where one person always accepted an offer and the other always rejected it. Most people in the group found rejecting the offer much easier. Perhaps because you just had to mirror your partners offer in the negative rather than come up with something new, perhaps because we are hard-wired to say no, to negotiate a better position or offer. This could be seen in another game, where you were in a shop. Inevitably when a shopkeeper offered a product, the customer’s first instinct is to ask to see more. We don’t like to accept a first offer without seeing what better options might be available.

Positioning is compulsive 

Separate, but connected to the fact it seemed easier to say ‘no’ than to say ‘yes’, is the compulsive desire to establish a position and stick to it, to dig your heels in, no matter how silly, temporary or abstract a scene. It was fascinating to see how quickly people in a brand new scene would find a position and stick to it. For example, someone might say, “you sold me a car and it was faulty” and their game partner will start on a lengthy manoeuvre to evade responsibility. 

Our teacher would stop us and say things like, “this is Australia we don’t barter in shops just accept the price”, or “yes, you sold the faulty car, what happens next?” Is this about power, is it about protection or status? I don’t know, but I am sure looking forward to talking about it in our next session. It made me think, how much of what happens in workshops or meetings at work reflects this desire to create a position and stick to it? Do you even find yourself saying ‘no’ to something because someone else has said ‘no’ to you? Are there patterns of permissions that occur without us really thinking about them? A kind of tit for tat? I am finding myself much more aware of when I say no and asking myself why?

Listening is hard - especially under perceived pressure

My impro experience also showed me that listening is really hard - especially under real or perceived pressure. There were many examples of students not listening - often in a pretty funny way. For example, the teacher would stop exercises and say “ Did you hear what she just said to you?” or a student would start an exercise contrary to clear instructions - causing a laugh that confused them. Sometimes I remember not listening properly, and getting a not so subtle prompt from a fellow student, but I am sure that there were other times I was was completely oblivious.

I felt my ability to listen and perform generally was compromised when I felt under pressure, for example, if I had to perform in front of others, or perform first, or if I was not sure what I was doing, or if I did not feel like I had a good rapport with my partner or team. It is funny how perceived pressure can affect you. Because of course, it was not real pressure. I was in a small room, with supportive peers, all in the same boat, playing a game, with zero negative ramifications if I stuffed up. The stakes could not have been lower.

Great facilitation

My teacher is really, really great. He quickly set up a positive learning space that allowed him to provide clear feedback and instructions. His facilitation experience showed when he asked questions, gave feedback and prompted. He took different approaches for different people and always encouraged and supported. I was corrected many times, but I never felt like I had done the wrong thing - my mistakes were a learning opportunity for the whole group and vice versa.


So if you want to have some fun, improve your confidence ad libbing in front of others, learn to listen better, and accept what others say more, I recommend giving impro a go. You will love it!