A different kind of happy
Can improv training increase workplace happiness? Regardless of the environment I have seen improvisation used, whether it be at an improv show, public course or in house training, there is one thing that jumps out immediately; people seem to be enjoying themselves. I don’t mean the nervous giggle or the overpowering, status-demanding guffaw, I mean the sustained, genuinely comfortable laughter that bubbles up near the start of a session and extends well beyond the end. Improvisation is not like stand-up comedy that has a rehearsed rhythm, set-up and knock-‘em-down style of joke, improvisation has a more fluid, adventurous, collaborative structure that often leaves participants laughing in surprise at their own inventiveness and lack of inhibition. This is laughter that arises from joy. The joy of creation, participation and spontaneity. It has been shown that when we are in a happy state, we think more fluidly and are more productive So how can you use improvisation to increase workplace happiness? Here are my top 10 ways.
by Joe Samuel
1 – Experience it for yourself
You wouldn’t arrange a day of racing around Goodwood and then stand in the pits, arms folded, watching your colleagues hurtle round in amazing cars. So why is it that I have seen so many managers standing at the side of the room during an improv training day? Improvisation demands participation and we prefer for everyone in the room to be involved, even the CEO, journalist and sometimes even the caterers!
2 – Listen to the quietest people
There will always be the characters in the workplace that attract and enjoy attention. It will be their voices that will dominate the workplace and the start of an improv session. With the right facilitation however, the quitter members of the team will soon start to build their confidence and hold their space. Their voices are often quieter, gestures smaller and posture more closed, but what they have to say is no less important. Apply this to meetings and in an office environment and you will soon find that the best ideas can come from the quietest people. Listening to them will not only make them feel more valued, but you might just hear something you would never have thought of yourself.
3 – Try saying the difficult thing
An improv session is a great time to let yourself off the leash. When playing a character or scenario you can really explore different reactions, proposals and ideas that in the real world you would never have the chance to do. Sometimes however, these seemingly preposterous ideas provoke interesting responses and you can end up somewhere you never could have reached otherwise. These can be positive as well as negative. Telling someone you have worked with for years that you have always admired their phone manner may seem embarrassing at first, but will most likely lead to deeper relationships, greater respect for your colleagues and greater workplace happiness.
4 – Say yes
The mainstay of an improv class is to say, “Yes, and”. While it is not always appropriate to say ‘yes’, it can be done in a surprising variety of ways and lead to a more constructive and vibrant work environment. Practising saying yes in an improv workshop can really open your mind to the times when you shut somebody’s ideas down before they have had a chance to explain what they really mean. Saying yes does not always commit you to something, it just opens the door to a more positive and expansive world.
5 – Lead and Follow
There are times when the best thing to do is be firm, take the lead and be decisive. This should not be the default option however. Even if you are the best qualified, most confident or most experienced person in a situation, it can sometimes be a split-second decision to hang back and listen to somebody else and support their move. Especially when collaborating as a team for a pitch or in a meeting, try getting behind someone else’s idea and giving them more momentum. Before long you will find that they do the same for you and you come across as a tight team.
6 – Listen, don’t talk and listen again
Talking can often be a defensive move. It can literally cut someone off. You may as well just say ‘no’ if you interrupt somebody. Now it might well be that you mean to, and should say ‘no’ to an ill-formed or ill-advised idea, but even so it is far more powerful to listen, not talk, listen again and then disagree with someone with a calm assertiveness rather than irritation.
7 – Learn to listen to your body
There are certain improvisation exercises that involve people stepping forward or into the middle of a circle to deliver a line. It amazes me to see that people’s bodies seem to instinctively know when to contribute but then the brain kicks in and shuts the impulse down. This is not about barging in and taking the limelight, it is more about your natural intuition and how to use it. If you train yourself to trust your physical instincts, you will find that your body often knows far better than your brain does. Listen to it.
8 – Break your patterns
We all have routines and programs that we follow every day in repeated situations. We need these to avoid being overwhelmed with decisions on how to behave. Sometimes though our patterns can mask a more genuine response to a situation. If you nod informally to the security guard at the door to your office building every morning, then try talking to them once in a while. If you always have the same dessert from the canteen, then try something else. It may seem trivial but many studies have shown that breaking our patterns keeps us agile and makes us more alert and responsive to stimuli.
9 – Move
Getting up and moving around is an intrinsic part of an improvisation workshop but it has a hidden benefit. We think more creatively and intuitively when we are moving – think about the ideas you have when on a long walk or when staring out of a train window. If you find yourself in a dead-end with a problem or creatively blocked when creating something, then get up and move. In a workshop we will try to avoid doing exercises or scenes while seated as this instantly lowers our energy, but the vast majority of workplace decisions are made while seated. Get up and move and you will find an immediate improvement to your workplace happiness.
10 – Improv training, laughter and workplace happiness
It may seem insulting to point out that laughter arises from happiness but it is interesting to note that happiness arises from laughter also. An improv workshop is infused with generous laughter and unless participants refuse to get involved, everyone has their moment of genuine laughter and genuine happiness. Laughter is not always the best response to a situation and it certainly cannot be forced but we have found that laughter can be practised, and that this practise continues well into the rest of the day, week and year and makes a significant contribution to workplace happiness.