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Help Your Communication Partner: Watch and Practice

Alan Alda explains why it’s your job to help the other person understand what you’re trying to say using classic improvising techniques.
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The Art and Science of Relating: Use Improvising Techniques to Help Your Communication Partner, with Alan Alda, Actor & Author, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Take responsibility for engagement Something I learned from improvising really helps in communication. There are basic improvising techniques and exercises, like the Mirror Exercise, where you become my mirror. And whatever I do, wherever I move, you have to do that at exactly the same time as if you were the mirror, with no lag time. Well, if I’m the person looking into the mirror, and you’re my mirror, how can you be my mirror unless I help you be my mirror?
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I’m responsible for your being with me and in sync at every moment. And it’s a wonderful image–a symbol–of what communication is, because it’s my job if you don’t understand…it’s my job to help you understand. And it’s your job to keep the other person with you. And the way you do that, the way you keep the other person with you, is keep reading the clues you’re getting from the person. The person’s face, the person’s eyes, the tone of voice, the body language, the way they occupy a chair. All of these things are clues to what’s going on in their head as you try to communicate with them.
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Maintain connection with improv’s “yes, and” In improvising, each improvisor has the job of making the other one look good. You share the experience. The principle of “yes, and” is an example of that. For instance, if we’re in a scene together and you look down and you say, “Whoa, look at all that water down there!” And I say, “That’s not water, that’s the floor.” Well, maybe I’ll get a laugh out of that from the audience, but I’ve just destroyed the scene and I’ve made you look foolish. You called it water, it’s obviously a floor. That’s not even “yes”, it’s just “no”. You could say, “yes, but” and cut it off with the “but”.
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But if you say “yes, and”…”Yeah, look at that water! Let’s jump in and swim out to that whale and catch on to the whale and swim away.” Now I’ve accepted what you’ve given me and I’ve added to it. This is a really valuable technique in communication, to not say to the person, “yes, but you know, that’s not true.” There’s something about it that may be true, but maybe it’s under the surface. The person is saying, “I wish I understood how the universe worked, and I think the universe works like this. We’re all connected psychically, and we’re telepathic…”, and it could go off into someplace where you don’t really agree at all. But the person is trying to figure out things.
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And you can agree about that, because nobody has the final answer on anything, I don’t think. So you can say “yes” to that part of it, and you can explore some part of it that you both can explore together. The idea is, if you cut off the connection, then communication stops. I think communication is a partnership. If you have to think about your partner, and help your partner. It’s not me pouring stuff into your empty brain.

In this video, Alan Alda explains why it’s your job to help the other person understand what you’re trying to say. Using classic improvising techniques, he encourages you to keep communication alive by accepting and adding to your communication partner’s comments.

What does improvisational comedy have to do with collaborating well at work and succeeding in any career path? Too often we only half-listen to other people’s ideas, waiting on tiptoes for an opportunity to share our own. That’s a “Yes, but— ” approach to communication. “Yes, that’s very interesting what you said, but how about my far superior idea?” Worse still is the flat-out “no”. “Nope! That won’t work, and here’s seven reasons why…”

Take responsibility for engagement

  • It’s your job to help the other person understand what you’re trying to say.
  • Keep the other person with you by reading the clues, or signals, you’re getting from the person. What is he communicating with his face? His eyes? Her tone of voice? Her body language?

Maintain connection with improv’s “yes, and”

  • Keep communication alive by accepting what the other person says and adding to it.
  • Stay open-minded. Commit to exploring new ground together, even when you disagree.

In improv, “Yes, and—” is the golden rule: “Oh no! The house is on fire!” one performer might say. “Quick, let’s escape!” says another. “We can’t! The door’s blocked!” says a third. “Out the window, then!” replies the first. They listen, accept, and work together to build and inhabit an imaginary scene.

In business as on stage, no one’s an island. Working together, like improv, demands a “Yes, and—” approach. You accept what comes at you and you build upon it. This is how you build trust with colleagues and it’s how you collaboratively build a great business.

And it’s a two-way street, always. Alda references “the mirror exercise”, popular in acting schools, where one partner tries to mirror another’s movement in real time. To succeed, says Alda, partner A needs to ensure that partner B (the mirror) is “getting it”. To communicate clearly the speaker is always, necessarily, also a close listener.

Over To You

After you watch the video, privately consider practicing and observing what we have learned and don’t forget to make notes!

  • Keeping the lesson in mind, just observe at your next company meeting how people communicate with one another. How do they talk? How do they listen? Make a note of “No!”, “Yes, but—”, and “Yes, and—” type responses.

  • At your next opportunity, try the “Yes, and—” approach in sharing ideas with a colleague. What were the results? What snags, if any, did you run into?

  • Why does Alda so heavily emphasize the responsibility of the speaker to bring the conversational partner(s) along for the ride?

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