Collaboration is Improv or is Improv a Collaboration?

Apr 23, 2018 | EDR Blog

By Leanne Bernstein for

I raced around the room, trying desperately to keep my bodyguard in between me and the paparazzi. But with every move I made it seemed like my bodyguard had their own agenda, and it didn’t include protecting me, which was true. In fact, they were also trying to get away from other paparazzi. In all this chaos, I actually forgot for a moment or two, that I was not really trying to escape from anybody. I was in a classroom learning about consensus building and communication.

This was the scene last week in my Negotiation and Dispute Resolution class, taught by Dr. Danya Rumore. Laurie Mecham, a specialist on applied improvisation, was the guest speaker and had us doing activities that ranged from running around the room in uproarious chaos as described above, to creating a wild story together one word at a time. Now at this point, if you are as skeptical as I was the first time I heard about doing improv exercises with a large group to learn how to be a good negotiator, then you’re probably pretty skeptical. But let me tell you, I am amazed by how much I learned about myself, group dynamics, and about letting go. The connections between applied improv and collaboration are remarkable.

Applied Improvisation takes many of the skills and concepts used in training actors and applies them to other applications and professions. As it turns out, there is quite a bit that everyone can learn from the concepts of applied improvisation as these techniques can be used to practice communication skills, increase self-confidence, help mitigate fear and reservation about public speaking, develop positive team dynamics, and more. These skills are particularly relevant for anyone who finds themselves engaging in negotiations or collaboration, as well as anyone who is committed to being an effective leader. Laurie brings these concepts home by facilitating creative games and activities that allow group members to experience the concepts in a light-hearted, yet impactful way. Practicing communication and collaboration skills with a humorous twist, as Laurie does, is a fun and unique approach to personal and professional development.

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One of the most important concepts of improv is the opportunity to experiment with new or difficult skills in a comfortable environment. We started the session with some simple warm-ups to get the group energized and working together, such as the game described above. During this activity, everyone in the group of about twenty people was tasked with randomly and silently selecting one person to be their ‘paparazzi’ and another to be their ‘bodyguard.’ The object of the game was to keep your ‘bodyguard’ in between you and the ‘paparazzi.’ But the catch was that everyone else was doing the same thing, which led to the group frantically running around the room. This was a great warm-up exercise which required you to remain in the moment, to carefully observe others, and try to anticipate their actions. All of which are important skills in communication and negotiation. Practicing these concentration skills in a low-risk and fun situation helps to train your brain to be able to do them in more serious contexts. These warm-up activities allowed everyone to express themselves within their comfort zone and get more relaxed in the room. Bringing movement and creativity into our classroom allowed for a certain amount of cohesion that we hadn’t yet achieved by sitting at desks and discussing concepts, and even completing negotiation role-play simulations together.

Soon we were all warmed up and even feeling a bit giddy, and we were ready for some more focused endeavors. One of the next games was just that and took place in groups of three. Each group’s goal was to brainstorm an imaginary gift to give to our professor to celebrate the culmination of the semester. In our groups, we each took turns making a suggestion, with the next person responding with a “no…” statement, a “yes, but” statement, or a “yes, and” statement. The concept of “yes, and” statements is common in discussions about collaboration and consensus building. It seems like an easy concept – don’t just turn the ideas of your partners down, build on them – but it was fascinating to see this in quick, rapid-fire practice.

I realized through this exercise that just saying “no” is quite easy. It’s no wonder people tend to get into this habit. While saying “no” to each of my partners’ ideas, I didn’t actually have to listen to anything they were saying. I could just think about my next idea and disregard all of their suggestions. Responding with “yes, but” was quite a bit harder. For one, I had to listen more intently while also formulating my own ideas, and we kept going around with ideas but not getting anywhere because we weren’t working together. I found that responding with “yes, and” was the most fun. Yes, it was challenging, but we were able to work with each other and develop ideas together. Because this round was so productive (we came up with an awesome gift that involved a laser-light show presentation), it was energizing and much more fun. Even if I didn’t think each idea my partners had was the best direction to go in, we had a lot to work with and could continue building on ideas.

Our final game, and the one I learned the most from, was an exercise for the entire group. Standing in a circle, we were asked to create a story by going around the circle, each saying only one word. What started out a little slow, quickly became hilarious and unpredictable. At the start, the skeptic in me seriously wondered how I could become a better negotiator by slowly telling an aimless story with my peers, but by the end it was clear. During this process, I found myself willing my classmates as hard as I could to say the words I wanted them to say and to tell the story I had in my mind. Needless to say, they did not. (And I learned for certain that I am not a Jedi.) It simply did not matter what I wanted to happen, the story was going to go where it was going to go, and I could only do what was in my ability with a single word at a time to steer the process. This exercise was a potent lesson in letting go of my desired outcome and in being resilient. I never knew what the person before me was going to say, but I had to be prepared to cope with the unpredictable. By the end, I was satisfied in the experience and the process of storytelling, and couldn’t even really tell you where the story ended up.

In all of these exercises, we had a chance to become fully immersed in the activities, let go of self-consciousness, and practice skills in a safe environment. To view my interactions with others as a gift put a positive spin in things and kept me in the moment. For example, in the group story exercise, we each had to balance our turn by saying something funny and outrageous along with providing something useful for the person after to use and build on. I became keenly aware of how present I was and had to be for this exercise and the others. If you find yourself not paying attention or being in your own head too much, you will surely miss out on what’s happening and miss your cue.

Finally, comedy has a powerful ability to lighten up a tough or tense situation. Even more simply, having empathy for yourself and for others in tense or otherwise uncomfortable situations (such as an improv session with twenty of your classmates) will open the door for you to communicate effectively, be creative, work productively in a group setting, and escape the paparazzi. It is important to allow space for yourself and your peers to develop and practice new skills. The comedy that came from these exercises added immeasurable value to the task of personal development.


Leanne Bernstein is a Master’s student in the City and Metropolitan Planning Department at the University of Utah. She is currently working with the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program as a Graduate Student Fellow.