Talking to people at work can be challenging and stressful. Whether you’re attending meetings, conversing with clients, or just making small talk in the hallway, nerves can start to take over. What do you do with your hands? How long should you hold eye contact? What do you even talk about? And if you’re used to working from home—let’s say, if a global pandemic forces you and all your colleagues to go remote for many many months—face-to-face interactions can feel even more overwhelming.
Improvisation can help.
Improv is a form of unscripted theater where the actors don’t know in advance what they’ll say or do—or what other actors will say or do. There are no costumes or props, only a bare stage and chairs. The show often begins with a random word suggested by the audience. In order to create something out of nothing, improv performers have developed a whole range of techniques to keep themselves focused and in the moment.
For the past 14 years I’ve taught improvisation to people of all ages in theaters, at schools, on cruise ships, and online. I’ve also worked with companies including TikTok, Google, and YouTube to use improv techniques to improve collaboration, communication, and confidence. With everyone from kids to CEOs, I’ve found that improv principles can help. We’ll take a look at some of these techniques and break down how they can be applied specifically to the workplace and work-related interactions.
1. Practice Active Listening
Listening is an improviser’s main tool. In order to respond to your partner and build off of what they said, you have to actually listen to what they’re saying! Not just listen, but actively listen. Most of the time we’re passively listening, focused on what we’ll say next or imagining what the person we’re talking to is going to say, and we miss key elements of the conversation. We’re so busy anticipating that we end up listening to only half of what is said.
I’ve seen many scenes derailed because an improviser only heard the beginning of a sentence, or completely ignored their partner’s offer. For example:
Improviser A: “I’ve had the worst day on this ship. I got seasick, dropped the map in the ocean, and a seagull took my hat. It’s hard being pirates like us.”
Improviser B: “Welcome to space! We’re astronauts.”
Clearly, Improviser B didn’t listen beyond the first few words, assumed the “ship” was a “spaceship,” and has now forced Improviser A to justify why these pirates are in space.
Instead of interrupting or thinking about what you’ll say next, try waiting until the person you’re talking to is done talking and then respond. For example, here’s what might happen if you’re too eager to jump in and aren’t listening:
Coworker: “I’ve been thinking about trying something new for lunch—”
You: “Oh, there’s a new sushi place that opened around the corner. Let’s go there!”
But if you allow your coworker to finish, the exchange might sound like this:
Coworker: “I’ve been thinking about trying something new for lunch—maybe that new taco place? I’m allergic to fish, so I’d like to avoid sushi.”
You (once you’ve noticed that they’re done speaking): “Yeah, tacos sound great.”
Waiting for someone to complete their thought is only the beginning. You should also aim to listen beyond their words to try to gauge their intent. If someone knows that they’re being listened to and not just spoken to, they feel validated. When we’re actively listening, we’re communicating effectively and clearly understanding each other’s goals and objectives—whether those are about today’s lunch or that really important project.
2. Be Aware of Body Language
Body language helps improvisers communicate what they’re thinking or feeling without having to say what they’re thinking or feeling. Nonverbal cues like posture, facial expressions, and length of eye contact can be extremely helpful when they're trying to work together quickly and efficiently. If you know that your partner is on the same page as you, you will be more likely to keep going with a specific line of thought. If you know that your partner is in disagreement, you’ll try another tactic.
For example, if an improviser walks onstage to find their fellow actor facing them with a big smile, they might pick up on those nonverbal cues and kick off the scene with, “It’s good to see my best friend after so many years!” But if instead their fellow actor is glaring at them, they might initiate with, “When we last saw each other it ended badly. But I still consider us best friends.” The improviser still uses the same idea, but recognizes the emotion that their colleague is projecting.
The same is true of any interaction you have at work. Paying attention to people’s body language, in addition to the words they say, is crucial. If you’re talking to someone and you see their gaze wander or their body start to stiffen, for example, find a way to change the topic or end the conversation. Let’s say you see a coworker in the hallway and say, “Hi! I haven’t seen you in forever. How are you? What’s going on?” If they cross their arms, look at the ground, and say, “Oh, nothing,” you might recognize that it’s not the best time to talk. You’ll also be able to glean how people are feeling about an idea suggested in a meeting, a project deadline, or anything else you’re working on together.
Your own body language is important, too. It can help signal that you’re open to ideas and enthusiastic about collaboration—or the opposite. So be aware of the messages you’re sending. Start with your face by holding eye contact, relaxing your features, and smiling or nodding to what is being said. Then move to your shoulders, drop them down, and make sure they’re not tense. Uncross your arms. When our body looks closed off, it can signal that we’re closed off to ideas. But an open stance can let someone know that you’re approachable and receptive.
3. Accept and Build on Others’ Ideas (“Yes, and…”)
A golden rule in improvisation is the idea of “Yes, and...” Not that you have to say these words exactly, it’s more of a guiding principle that you accept your partner’s idea (“yes”), and then build on that idea (“and…”). “Yes, and” starts you off with positivity and possibility, which can help the scene flow and continue. In improv, it might look like this:
Improviser A: “I got this cake for you.”
Improviser B: “You remembered my birthday!” [yes, that is a cake and it’s my birthday]
Improviser A: “How could I forget? You’re 100 years old.” [yes, it is your birthday and it’s a big one]
Improviser B: “I am and I look great for my age.” [yes, I am 100 and good looking]
Improviser A: “Thank goodness you found that fountain of youth.” [yes, you look great and here’s the reason why]
“Yes, and” is great for off-stage conversations, too. Simple agreement can let a coworker know that you’re on the same page. If we immediately start with a negative reaction (either verbally or physically), the person we’re talking to goes on the defensive. Try saying, “Yeah, I know,” or simply “Yes,” to get started and build trust, even when you’re making small talk. At work, this might sound like:
Coworker: “I hear we’re getting a new copier.”
You: “I know, I saw them take the old one away.”
Coworker: “That old copier never worked right.”
You: “Yeah, I’ve lost so much time clearing out those jams.”
This isn’t to say that you have to agree to everything or become a “yes machine.” But agreement at the beginning of a conversation—about a shared goal or intent for a project or even just the meeting itself—can give you a harmonious start and help you relax into wherever the topic leads. For example, maybe you’re walking back to your team’s desks after a meeting with folks from various departments:
Coworker: “I think that meeting went really well.”
You: “Yeah I know, everyone seemed to be on the same page.”
Coworker: “Finally. I feel like Jim shoots everything down.”
You: “Well, he’s just being cautious.”
If you agree up top that the meeting went well, it’s easier to express disagreement about Jim without letting the conversation devolve or losing sight of your shared goals.
4. Find Common Ground
Improvisers use relatable situations—not jokes—to start their scenes. If you open with a joke and your partner doesn’t know the punchline, the scene falls flat. It might sound like this:
Improviser A: Did you hear about the dog that walked into a bar?
Improviser B: Uh, yes and…
But when you start on common ground with a location or circumstance your partner can relate to, it’s easier to build on:
Improviser A: I’m glad we could finally meet. You look just like your profile picture.
Improviser B: Yeah, you too. I’ve heard this is a good restaurant.
Improviser A: It is! The waiters sing to you.
You’ve probably been on a first date before, so you’d be in a better position to know what to say. It might be harder to imagine what that dog would say to a bartender.
The same goes for a chat in a break room or small talk at the beginning of a meeting. Talk about things you know (such as shared hobbies or interests) or familiar experiences (like commutes, meetings, and other “work stuff”). Being relatable and honest lets your colleagues feel at ease and allows you to forge deeper connections. This can be a vulnerable place, so only share what you’re comfortable sharing.
If you’re discussing a particular project, you can also start with something that shows you recognize a shared experience. For example:
You: How’s your team dealing with the new challenges of this project? We’ve found them a little tough.
Colleague: Yeah, we weren’t expecting the latest developments.
Like an improv scene, it is easier to know what to say and respond when the conversation begins on common ground.
5. Try to Be Confident in the Face of the Unknown
When improvising, performers never know what’s going to come next. If they show fear, uncertainty, or panic, the audience and the other performers are going to lose trust in the performance and disconnect. In order to stay engaged and make scenes entertaining, improvisers put on a show of confidence. Even if they’re scared or don’t know what to do, they remain cool and collected. This skill develops over years of practice and a gradual process of getting used to the uncertainty.
I’ve seen experienced improvisers make hilarious speeches and sing impromptu songs in shows. When I would compliment them after the show, most would say, “Thanks, I had no idea what I was doing.”
Whether you’re discussing ideas in a meeting, making a presentation, projecting the goals of a longer-term strategy, or having a quick exchange, you have to realize and accept that you don’t know how things will play out. Try to get comfortable with not knowing, recognize that others probably feel the same way, and trust that if you work together, you’ll figure out the path forward.
6. Be Resilient
Improvisers are constantly adapting to every new piece of information in a scene. And if they’re thrown off, they’re resilient about it. How a performer recovers can build trust with the audience and fellow performers, and prove that they can adapt to a new situation. For example, a scene might go like this:
Improviser A: “As you can see, there are hardwood floors throughout the first level. Three bedrooms, two baths.”
Improviser B: “Mom, I know what our house looks like.”
Improviser A: “Scott, I need to practice if I’m going to be the best real estate broker in this town!”
Improviser B: “Ugh, OK. Tell me about the breakfast nook again.”
Improviser A was acting like a real estate agent and Improviser B made them their mom. Improviser A had to go with the flow and be flexible when the scene wasn’t going the way they thought.
Sometimes a conversation or meeting can take you in a direction you didn’t expect. In moments like these, take a pause and breathe. Don’t shut down or retreat. If we approach the situation as something we can work through and overcome, we become stronger for the next time it happens. For example, let’s say your coworker approaches you in the breakroom:
Coworker: “Hey, what did you do this weekend?”
You: “I watched the new Marvel movie. It was great.”
Coworker: “Oh, I hate superhero movies.”
You might be taken aback by their comment, but you can bounce back with:
You: “Yeah, they’re not for everyone. What movies do you like?”
Now you have a new topic and a new opportunity to find a common interest. The same attitude can help you in more high-stakes situations. Let’s say you’ve just presented to a client and don’t get quite the response you were hoping for:
Client: “That’s great, but do you have anything else?”
You: “Did you have something in mind? We’ve had a couple of ideas in the works, but we want to give you what you really want.”
You can recover by clarifying with the client and opening up the conversation for further collaboration. And no matter what the situation, try not to get defensive.
7. Don’t Judge
If you’re in an improv scene and immediately judge your own idea, or your partner’s, the situation comes to a standstill. Judgement quickly leads to criticism, negative thinking, and distrust. Here are three versions of the same back and forth—in the first two, judgement gets in the way, whereas in the third, there’s no judgement and a much smoother path forward:
Improviser A: This cruise is surely going to help our marriage. Wait, no that’s stupid. What I mean is that this cruise is great.
Improviser B: Uh, yes?
Improviser A: This cruise is surely going to help our marriage.
Improviser B: Ugh, we’re on a cruise? OK...
Improviser A: This cruise is surely going to help our marriage.
Improviser B: I know, I’m glad we’re taking Dr. Monroe’s advice.
Your improv partner has no incentive to invest in an idea that you hate. And if you judge your partner’s idea, they’ll feel attacked. It’s important to go along with the situation and see where it leads you.
Similarly, if a colleague suggests an idea, try not to jump to an immediate judgement. Instead, acknowledge their suggestion, ask questions, and try to understand the full picture before you reach a conclusion. For example:
Colleague: What if we try using the slides from last year’s presentation?
You: That might work. What was it about those slides that stood out to you compared to this year’s?
Starting with a possibility, “That might work,” or “Interesting,” lets your colleague know that you’re open to finding out more. Ultimately, you don’t have to go with the idea, but hearing someone out makes them feel valued.
And if you suggest an idea, be confident in your choice. When you believe in what you’re saying, others will too. By reserving judgement in the moment, we’re in a mode of acceptance and flexibility for what might come.
Connecting in person is hard and can feel daunting or awkward. But using these simple improv techniques can help you become a more confident communicator. And as you work on your communication skills, take it easy, trust yourself, and try to have some fun.