Many employee-development programs and team-building workshops are agonizing to attend, and any value they add to your professional life may very well be minimal.
But for many people, one major exception is improv, which can offer some interesting benefits. Improv training is a particularly good fit for technologists, especially as agile, cross-functional workplaces become the norm. Communication and flexibility are essential throughout the tech industry, and improvisation is (by its very nature) a communication-based art form.
“The great thing,” said Robert Kulhan, president and CEO of Business Improv and an adjunct professor of business at both Duke University and Columbia University, “is that at its purest, improv only asks for you to articulate your thoughts, to just be yourself, to be authentic and to vocalize your perspective.”
Many people assume that, in order to perform improv, you have to be quick-witted and funny. In truth, though, it’s more about learning to loosen up enough to say what’s on your mind the moment you have a particular thought, and to do so without fearing whether it’s right or wrong or even relevant. “It’s about learning to relax and letting your natural intelligence rise to the surface,” added Kulhan, “so that it can make its way out of your mouth and allow you to connect with other people.”
Stephanie Hubbard, a Marriage and Family Therapist intern who specializes in work and creativity, is also the director of the documentary short, “Improv, Death, Ice Age.” She believes that improv classes are a substantive yet low-stakes way to foster group collaboration. “I think people get really anxious about interacting in the workplace,” she said, “especially introverts, or people who might not be natural introverts but who have been working in a way that puts them in a silo, so they’ve developed those behaviors.”
According to Hubbard, you should choose your improv class as you would a therapist; if it’s not providing a safe space and you’re made to feel embarrassed or humiliated in any way, find a new one.
Learning improv is experiential. Kulhan likens it to doing a cannon-ball dive into a pool: it’s exciting and there’s no real “right” way to do it. You also acclimate fast because you jump right in. The act of getting up on your feet and committing to the experience creates the kind of vulnerability that opens you up to what others are doing and saying, as well. At the same time, you’re putting yourself out there with other people, and there’s safety in numbers.
“From a purely practical perspective, it gives you good practice in a space where you don’t have to worry about your job performance,” Hubbard said. “The skills you learn in improv, like attentive listening and being in the moment, are all really powerful elements that pay off exceptionally well in a work environment.”
Kulhan has found that another byproduct of regular improv practice is the ability to adapt and be comfortable in a variety of situations. “It trains us to be nimble,” he said. “You understand how to take twists and turns as they come at you and still find success, and that also relates to social settings like networking.”
Ultimately, improv works all the muscles that help you relate to both your environment and your colleagues, regardless of where you are, who they are or where anyone stands on an organizational chart. “The best improv brings out our version of tribal dance and storytelling around the fire,” said Hubbard. “We get so lost in our culture; driving in cars and working in cubicles. It’s important to have that enlivened sense of working with people that improv can give us.”