Improve Your Conversations with Improv

September 20, 2020

Are you looking for ways to enhance the quality of your communication with others? 

Try validating, affirming, and building on what your conversation partners say, or “offer.”

In improvisational acting (“improv,” for short), this has become a core principle: it’s called “Yes, and” because it’s as simple as saying “Yes” … that is, affirming that what was just offered was valid … and then saying “and …” + adding to what was said or offered — that is, building on the offer.

For example, let’s say you and I start chatting — in real life or in an improvised role-play scenario:

You: “Whew!  It’s really hot out today!”

Me: “Yes, it is — and I wish I were somewhere way up north.”

You: “Yeah, me too; I’d like to be in Vermont right about now!”

Me: “Vermont sounds good; I hear it’s really pretty up there …”

Smooth!  You offered “really hot,” and I replied, “Yes, and …” and then you responded “Yeah + Vermont …” and then I said “sounds good + really pretty …” — we used various words as “Yes, and” substitutes.  Simple and natural, right?  But it’s not always easy to do this in actual conversations!  (More on that in a moment.)

In improv, “Yes, and” is lesson #1!

English language learners can boost their confidence, creativity, and fluency with improv exercises & role-plays.  Improvisation means making things happen or solving problems spontaneously, on the spot, without advance planning.  Engaging in improv — even very briefly — can help *YOU* handle unexpected situations, workplace conversations, and public speaking challenges more effectively. 

In improv scenario role-playing AND in the many real roles you play in life, you can enhance the quality of your interactions by validating & affirming what others offer.  As you probably know, brainstorming — generating fresh ideas in a context where all ideas are welcome, and no ideas are initially rejected — is built on this principle.

Why isn’t this always easy to do?  Well, a full answer to that might require some psychological & sociological insights, but for now, just consider how often we do this: 

You: “Whew!  It’s really hot out today!”

Me: “Do you think so?  Actually, it seems fairly cool to me.”

Oops — sorry!  I immediately denied the validity of your offer, negating your “really hot” with my “fairly cool.”  This can have a chilling effect on our conversation and even deflate your confidence.  My bad!  I should have realized that my “Actually” would lead to trouble.   

In improv scenarios, this trouble is serious: If you said it’s hot, and I said it’s cool, then what is the weather in our scenario?  The  imagined reality we could have built together for an audience (or just ourselves) has been undermined, and will need rescuing … or restarting.

An even more common troublemaker than “Actually” is “but” — often disguised as “Yes, but …”:

You: “I’d like to be in Vermont right about now!” 

Me: “Yes, but Canada’s even better than Vermont.”

Ouch!  My “butcanceled my own “Yes” — and maybe I didn’t consciously mean to deflate your “Vermont,” but subconsciously I did!  Watch out for this subtle conversation spoiler.

Improv & acting exercises offer ways to overcome the impulse to contradict, invalidate, negate, and deflate each other’s contributions to conversations & situations.  The imagined realities of role-play scenarios help stretch our sense of self and appreciation of other selves, expand our interpersonal comfort range, and enhance the quality of our real-life interactions & relationships!

A version of this article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2020.

(photo by Lloyd Bishop: “Vine on a Wall”)

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