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Joe Bill is a veteran improv actor who performs and teaches internationally. In addition to his work in the theater world, he brings lessons form the world of improv to organizational leadership teams. In a recent Audio Accompaniment on our blog, Joe spent time talking with Collective Next’s solution designer Geoff Amidei about the role of listening in improv and how that can be applied to the work of leaders within organizations. Here’s more from that interview:

Geoff Amidei: You’ve given us a sense of the central role that listening plays in improv. Can you talk specifically about how you bring improv into leadership trainings within organizations?

Joe Bill: My workshops focus on developing authentic presence and strengthening the ability to communicate with colleagues who have styles different from our own. All of the workshops are customized to meet the objectives of the organization, but at a high-level they can be described in three parts. In the first portion, I work with the group to make sure everyone is fully present. This might be done through an exercise in which we pass a clap or a sound around the circle. We then reflect on the varying ways in which people passed the clap or sound—loudly, softly, slowly, quickly, etc.

Geoff: It sounds like you use listening as a way of helping bring people into the moment and then of observing the different ways in which each individual might be present.

Joe: Yes, and the second third of the workshop is focused on exploring these different ways of being here and recognizing the value of each. In this section, I offer up different improv exercises that illustrate the way aptitudes that are valuable in one setting may be less so in another. I work with the group to observe how these different sensibilities help or hinder different forms of creation.

Geoff: Can you give us an example?

Joe: One word stories.  You go around the circle and each person adds one word to an evolving sentence in order to form a narrative. You find that for some people having the collective sentence make sense, or be grammatically correct, is paramount. Others are willing to add whatever word best furthers the story and some people will add a word to try to be funny regardless of what has come before.

Geoff: And the third part of the workshop?

Joe: Here we shift gears and say, okay given the different styles people have, how do we all play well together? We want to get concrete here and identify experiences in the improv exercises that will motivate and inspire people to try something new in their day-to-day work life.

For example, in a recent workshop I had a woman who was a type A personality and who had trouble with eye contact and connecting with colleagues. In the improv exercises, we created an opportunity for her to explore new ways of listening to her colleagues that promoted connection and collaboration.

This then translates into a realization that her “open door policy” wouldn’t really invite true conversation or true listening unless it was accompanied by a closed laptop policy. She had to make sure that she was fully present and listening to what was being communicated by her colleagues both verbally and non-verbally.

Geoff: You are using improv techniques and exercises to allow people to have a first-hand experience of truly listening in a collaborative way, of being present in an authentic way so that they have an emotional memory of what this feels like and the positive impact it can have.

Joe: The improv exercises provide a model that leaders can then attach to real life. And hopefully one of the important lessons that is always learned is that there is value in having fun and celebrating mistakes as well as successes.