For years I performed with San Diego Playback Theatre and before that with the Mirth Meisters, a comedy improv troupe. What I learned in those years—both as a performer and as an instructor—is that there is a lot of similarity between living life and performing on the stage. Here a few basic rules about improvisational theater that apply to all of our relationships. These “rules” are the basis for living a creative life.
Improv Rule 1: Never say “no”. Never negate what another actor has introduced into the scene: go along with it!
How many times in your life is your immediate reaction to someone’s suggestion or request is NO! – NO, we can’t do that, NO, that is too scary, and NO, I don’t like that. What would life be like if you really spent an entire day just saying yes to whatever was offered?
In Improv we learn that a NO of any kind, even a NO disguised as a “yes, but” stops the action, it stops the flow of energy. The same is true in life. Anytime you respond NO to another person, the action comes to a halt. Saying YES keeps life moving and vibrant in a growth mode. It also helps the other person feel acknowledged, important and included.
Of course there are times when NO is appropriate. I’m not suggesting that you do whatever anyone requests. You have a right (obligation) to you’re your boundaries and preferences. The secret is in how you offer your preferences as an additional offering (see Rule 2). Accepting what another person offers, to say yes and go along as long as it isn’t dangerous or life threatening might surprise you. Rather than the immediate, “no I can’t” try “Yes, I do have a few minutes to talk” or “yes, I would like to help you with that project.” Just try it for a day and see what happens.
Improv Rule 2: Say “yes, AND…” Add something to the scene. Don’t make the other actor carry you.
Now that you have learned to say yes to keep the action and the energy flowing, it is your turn to ADD to the scene. Adding to the scene is your opportunity to bring out your perspective, point of view, preferences and inspired insights. It is your opportunity to insert your “unique you” into the play of life.
The goal is to honor the other person’s suggestion (what improve calls ”the offer” and add to it. “Yes, I’d love to have coffee with you and I know of a great place that we can walk to right now.” Or, “Wow that is a wonderful idea to go to the movies it can be so entertaining AND what would you think about going for a hike so we can get some exercise as an alternative.” By saying “yes” to the offer, we honor the other, keep the action moving and the energy going. When we then add our own perspective or desires, we honor ourselves and offer additional options, making new possibilities that didn’t exist before.
Improv Rule 3: Make eye contact and listen. Listen to what is said and what isn’t.
How do you feel when someone takes the time to make eye contact and intentionally listen: important, cherished, appreciated, and intelligent? These are some of the feelings I experience. Contrast this with another conversation where someone is constantly watching the clock or texting for their next meeting.
When you really listen, you not only show how much you honor and appreciate the other, you will experience a different sense of connection, a deeper feeling about who the other person is. You will likely discover new insights about them, yourself or even life. There is magic to authentic connection and is often where the magic of an improv performance comes from. It is rare to really listen to someone both with your body and your ears. So give someone in your life and yourself that gift of magic — really listen.
Improv Rule 4: You don’t have to be funny. Be yourself.
Have you ever noticed how the funniest people are those that aren’t really trying to be funny, they are just being themselves. They bring their own sense of self and spirit to the conversation and the stories they tell are natural and engaging. So relax and be yourself. You usually are the funniest and most engaging when you are not trying to be.
Improv Rule 5: You can look good if you make your partner look good.
In improv, all of the above rules add up to Rule 5. You listen, you accept suggestions and add to them. You listen and add to the story without struggling to be funny. You are honoring your fellow player making them stand out on stage and by doing that you end up both looking great.
Think about how this applies to your relationships. To honor our relationship we set the intention to make our partner look great. We want our partner to succeed to feel honored and important. We say YES to who they are. We do our best to support them, encourage them, and sing their praises. We create our relationships by being our best. We ADD to conversations and life, offering our fullest expression and bringing our most authentic self into relationships.
After all, aren’t our relationships just one more way we get to act out our parts in this drama we call life?