The high wire

One of the main things that holds people back from taking an improvisation class, and a more improvisational approach to life, is fear and anxiety.

As learning designers and facilitators we are SUPER tuned in to this.

Cultivating trust and safety is the essential first step in everything we do.

We all know the feelings of fear, separation and anxiety. And also the possibility for trust, joy, connection, calm and flowing teamwork. We come to this space knowing both and everything we do revolves around this axis:

– fear, anxiety, contraction, separation, disengagement
– joy, excitement, expansion, belonging, involvement

The shift from contraction to expansion is rich and fruitful. Our job is to gently jiggle the key in the lock so we can open the door to more.

A plank on the ground

Imagine walking along a wide path in the woods. Easy, right?

Imagine walking along that path when it’s 20 metres up in the air. Scary, right? But doable.

Now imagine walking on a scaffolding plank on the ground. Pretty easy, right? You can skip along it no problem.

Now imagine that same plank 20 meters up in the air. Nuh-uh. Too scary. No skipping here thanks.

The risk is different.

It’s the same in social situations. Sometimes there isn’t enough trust and safety in the group for people to feel and perform their best. And sometimes we get up in our heads and fabricate stories that make us feel like we’re walking the plank – arr shipmates!

Both of these lead to a contraction and reduced possibilities and both can be artfully addressed with experiential creative learning.

Our job as trainers and facilitators is to make it to make group learning experiences feel more human and inviting so they aren’t a socially embarrassing high wire act, or a plank walk to a certain fate.

“If you’re up in your head then you’re not here with me.”

Susan Messing

Getting comfortable

Sometimes we feel comfortable with other people and we’re willing to risk sharing our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a risk, we just feel engaged and involved. And yet at other times we don’t feel that way.

What makes the difference?

  1. When do you feel comfortable being yourself and taking a few risks?
    When does it come naturally to share an idea, to laugh and joke around, to give honest feedback, to support and care for others, to tolerate a bit of uncertainty, to feel like you belong?
  2. When do you not feel comfortable being yourself or taking a few risks?
    When does it feel like being seen makes you vulnerable, like you might be shot down, or laughed at, like your ideas aren’t good enough, like you’re too slow and steady to keep up, or when real presence is not required, or when genuine honesty is not appreciated.

The difference is key to good teamwork and leadership.

Our aim to create a space where people are comfortable (maybe not too comfortable!) and there is a high level of listening, acceptance, presence and commitment. When that holds true much more is possible.

What makes the difference?

Interactive, experiential learning with improv and story is a many-splendored thing. Like making a good meal, it takes some choice ingredients, a bit of flare in the kitchen and a few taste-tests along the way.

We’ve cooked a few of these meals (and burned a few bits of toast along the way) so here are a few things we’ve learned that help people to stress less and smile more:

Learning design

Every session has a learning design with specific objectives. As experienced situational facilitators and group coaches we then improvise in the moment around that plan to get the best results with the group (we’re not anti-plans, we are pro-flexibility!).

Every activity we use has a point of concentration and multiple stages, riffs and variations. We call these elements scaffolding (more planks!) because they create activities are flexible to the needs of groups and individuals. We know what makes them work, the little instructions, reveals, twists and turns that get people engaged and involved.

Good scaffolding makes it possible to ‘put the plank on the ground’. It also makes it possible to build some pretty impressive structures.

Setting the container

We start every session with a check-in, taking some time to understand who’s in the room, what they are expecting, how they are feeling and what they want to get out of the session. It’s a gentle and human way to establish and maintain some agreements.

Behind the scenes of this we’re using quite a bit of behavioural tech and instructional design. If you’re into that stuff you’ll probably enjoy what we bring to the party. Otherwise you can just relax and take part.

We might ask a question like: ‘What has made you smile lately?’ or do a metaphorical check-in like ‘How are you feeling right now if it was a fairground ride?’ or ‘What’s something you’re a bit nerdy about or obsessed with?’ Opening questions like these help to bring people together in ways that feel more human.

Step-by-step progress

The first activities we do will feel more like walking across Westminster Bridge in London rather than walking the plank. It will get everyone involved, level the playing field, invite people to make and embrace mistakes and wobbles.

As improvisers and experienced trainers we know that staying connected to your senses, staying relaxed, open and being present are the absolutely necessary to open the jackpot of learning available through experiential learning.

So with each activity there are stages: easy, a bit more challenging and potentially quite challenging. We decide how far to push it, which riffs and variations will work for the group. We’ll know from the first few seconds of an activity the level of trust, safety and openness in the group and we’ll adapt from there to explore what kind of stretch is available and what’s possible for the group.

It’s always voluntary

We firmly believe that no one should be forced to do anything. So aside from whole group activities like warm ups and discussions which are designed to be inclusive, everything else we do (in pairs or quads say) is voluntary. You can sit it out and learn from watching. And if something is done in front of the group it’s voluntary – no one is co-opted. If you want to go last, go last. If you want to skip it, then do.

If you hold back because you don’t feel the trust and safety you need to engage then that invites the group to offer more support and inclusivity. That’s a rich area of learning that is ripe with the potential for change in a group.

And when you hold back because of self-doubt and self-limiting beliefs then that’s a rich space for learning as well. In the workshops where we focus on this we run a series of exercises that explore this territory in ways that help people to open up and expand their lives.

Of course we always want everyone to get fully involved and we aim for everyone to participate to the fullest extent. But we prefer to do that by invitation rather than force. By throwing a good party.

Emotional regulation

Experiential, interactive learning is a way to help people come together, learn together and step into change. When people show up for each other then something wonderful happens. We call it ‘the magic’ for want of a better phrase.

We co-regulate shifts in our autonomic nervous systems through three states: rest-and-digest (social and safe), fight-flight-flow (mobilisation) or flop-fawn-shutdown (immobilisation). There is solid science around our ability to attune in this way to unlock ‘adaptive behavioural strategies’. When we need to stay calm and move past fear, and tolerate some uncertainty – we help each other to do so. it’s one of the lovely things that happens in groups when people bring themselves into relationship.

And when we tap into a more flowing form of interaction, or even states of flow and group flow then we hit even higher levels of possibilities. There’s a way of combining intense concentration in the moment with staying open to your senses, relaxed and calm that connects you to the emergent field which allows you to respond into the field without knowing what to do. When we’re truly in relationship, we always know what to do.

Digging deeper

The principles that underpin good teamwork with trust, safety and high morale are well mapped out by luminaries such as Amy Edmondson and Patrick Lencioni.

We explore these dynamics with groups and if there is hesitancy, fear and anxiety in the group based on their day to day interactions and leadership – people feel they are walking the plank – then we help them explore what they can do to change that.

We never try to muscle groups through a set of exercises designed to fit a rigid curriculum. And we’ve worked as facilitators and consultants with many groups. We’re not just the local improv troupe offering to run a standard class. If there’s work to be done on trust, openness, commitment, accountability or attention to results then we go there with the group and we get results.

It’s not role play

What we do is creative, experiential learning. It’s not role play. So many people hate role play that we are often asked ‘It’s not role play is it?’ with a kind of rabbit-in-the-headlights kind of look. So no, it’s not that.

We like the idea of exploring things through parallel tracks. They open up rich comparisons and learning while being a bit oblique.

So by way of an example, a favourite game of ours if called gift-giving. In this deceptively simple activity people swap imaginary gifts. It’s always a delight to find out what imaginary gifts have been given at the end. Are they generous, like the keys to an Aston Martin? Or mean, like a stamp or a bit of pocket fluff?

It has a few stages of scaffolding in how gifts are given and named with various twists in giving, passing and sharing control. At every stage we can discover a lot about the ways in which we accept other people’s offers to us, listen and notice details. value and use other people’s ideas and how willing we are to share control, and what possibilities arise from co-creative acts.

From this activity we can walk the learning back into all sorts of areas of leading, following, creating and collaborating. No role play required.

Photo by Elora Allen on Unsplash

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