How to Learn to Listen

A client asked me yesterday morning what I would recommend to get everyone in their company to be customer focused, and to drive their success in their construction business. My simple (but not easy) answer was: emphasize listening. Listening skills. Hearing the customer.

Which is why this guest blog is so timely: learning comedy improvisation skills comes with a healthy dose of listening (and following) the lead of your comedic partners. A skill that translates directly into being a better leader, following, boss, team member, supplier, and service provider.

Also many other things, as Karl details below.

So the next time you’re looking for a team building exercise, active listening training, failure proofing, or creativity boost that’s also fun and dynamic, give him a call. He runs a kick-ass workshop.

Take it away Karl!

Yet another reason to learn Improv

Schooling doesn’t teach you to improvise. It doesn’t make you comfortable with failure. Neither does your job, unless you work for a remarkably avant garde company. Your friends typically don’t encourage failure either.

In fact what determines whether we label ourselves as creative individuals depends on very specific criteria. You might be labeled creative if you play music or produce any kind of art. The problem is that many of us have latent creativity which may go unexplored because of the stigma about creativity. It’s scary, unpredictable, messy. It makes us vulnerable to judgement. It requires failing often, with grace, even joy.

This is one good reason to give basic improv training a try. The first thing they teach you in class is to fail. Often. With grace and good humour and eventually – joy. Because there are a lot of ideas made form in the universe and most of them are going to suck. But even the ones that do suck will have sparks of goodness in them that you should try to use in a future idea. This is a concept that many people struggle to accept. Bad ideas have value? Yes, and accepting that you will have them helps you let them go in a way that keeps the creative stream flowing. There’s just no getting around it, creative thought is a process where failure is par for the course. What makes the process more challenging is that sometimes what seems like a bad idea, is really a good idea, and the masses just haven’t realized yet. So there’s that.

Again, improv training can help with that challenge, because another skill taught to improvisers is to accept new ideas and just run with them, build upon them. It takes practise to do that consistently, but once a group can learn to stop blocking new ideas regardless of their apparent ridiculousness, they begin to recognize the gems hidden in every idea presented by others. Even more importantly, they are much more forthcoming with ideas of their own, knowing that they won’t be judged or dismissed.

Avoid the word ‘impossible’. This word is quite possibly one of the most overused words in our vocabulary. I’ve observed so many cases where the word ‘impossible’ should have been replaced with the word ‘hard’. But what a difference it makes in the attitude surrounding an idea. When something is impossible, that gives everyone permission to discard the idea immediately. When something is hard, or difficult, that becomes a challenge, to find a way to make it less so. The idea is still viable.

Another reason that improv training can cultivate creativity in a group is the desire to make your peers look good. Creativity is halted in its tracks when the overall working culture is combative and overly competitive on an individual basis. But improvisers learn to collaborate, to make their peers look good when they falter. A creative group that adopts this approach doesn’t look for flaws in other people’s’ ideas, they look for ways to make what might sound like a mediocre idea better with a little tweak of their own added in. This also creates an environment where people are much more likely to offer ideas in the first place, because they know that any idea is very likely to be nurtured by the collective. This allows even a spark of brilliance to shine with total support.

The bottom line is that to survive in today’s business world, you have to be able to create amazing solutions to existing problems. An organization that promotes creativity by learning core improvisational skills would certainly have the edge.

Learn to accept failure

Probably the most memorable phrase about failure is, “Failure is not an option.” Worst. Phrase. Ever.

We learn as adults to fear failure partly because of how adult work life evolves into a competitive struggle against our peers and partly because we traditionally cheer success and frown upon anything else. A purely competitive corporate environment instills a fear that any failure will be interpreted as weakness or incompetence. This attitude could even prevent us from asking for help, which only exacerbates the issue. It’s unfortunate, because not only is failure a required part of learning, obsessing about failure in a negative way suppresses the desire to contribute ideas and keep striving for that sometimes elusive success at all. The status quo becomes the norm.

Failure is in fact a common occurrence. We fail all the time, have so since birth. That’s how we learn. But as we progress through childhood, during school, we also learn that if we fail a test, we don’t measure up. This kind of thinking can also be ingrained in us by our parents, our coaches, anyone in a leadership role with influence on us.

If we’re lucky, failure, while acknowledged, doesn’t become an obsession with those in charge of mentoring us as we grow. Instead, they show us what the failure teaches us in order that we find a better way. This is the single most important lesson an improvisor learns, and it’s a lesson they never stop being reminded of. Fail with joy! Fail and move on. There is no guarantee of success, only attempts at greatness. Each attempt leverages the past lessons learned.

This is a valuable strategy to adopt in adult life and work, especially as a leader or parent. For example, in a meeting, someone might put forward an idea that doesn’t pan out. The competitive nature of some work cultures might use that situation as an opportunity to focus only on the failure itself. This creates an environment where the contributor no longer wants to serve up any more ideas for fear of reprisal, shame, harassment, etc.

Forward-thinking companies do it differently. They not only encourage talking about what was learned from failure, they even make it into a competition, encouraging all workers to contribute their biggest failures and what those failures offered as lessons learned. This helps cultivate trust, empathy, and promotes collaboration. This tactic also works better during personnel assessments. Workers who understand failures as stepping stones to success do a much better job with self-assessment and the interview is spent building strategies to leverage those lessons.

Good leaders will share those lessons with the team, not to make the worker look bad, but to thank the worker for the free lesson. In fact, good leaders will set the stage for admitting failure by doing it themselves, to show that anyone can make mistakes and the the key is to learn from them. History shows that time and again, successes are often preceded by endless failures. We need to remind ourselves of this and give ourselves permission to fail. It’s inevitable. It’s necessary.

Adult Play

If you’ve been keeping up with the latest in team building options and creativity enhancement activities for workers, you’ve probably heard about the place you go as a team, where they lock you in a room and you have to collectively solve puzzles to escape. Or maybe a guru comes in with special Lego pieces and gets everyone to build physical models to represent abstract concepts. Or perhaps an improvisor leads the group in a variety of improv exercises. No matter what the team building activity is, they all have one thing in common. Play.

Play is defined as “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” I truly believe that while the first part of that definition may be accurate, the practical purpose part of the definition may be very misleading, knowing what we know today. When you talk to adults about play, they will describe it in a manner reflecting their current attitude toward the idea of play. Those who think of play as something only a child could benefit from, would never entertain the idea that adults can exercise their creative muscles through unabashed play. Then there are those who may see value in play, but are cautious of play that isn’t structured or is lacking clearly defined and unyielding rules.

Today, professionals in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and entrepreneurial companies on the bleeding edges of their fields, have all concluded after decades of research, that play is a vital component of adult activity. Play promotes community, cooperation, creativity, empathy, imagination, fairness, motor skills, the physical manifestation of abstract concepts, emotional growth, reduction in stress and competition, and so much more.

In my instructing career, I have almost discovered by sheer accident, that my students experience more joy and fulfillment when I incorporate some kind of play. In fact, in my career, I’ve grown less interested in teaching technical subjects and lean more toward facilitating sessions in soft skills like effective listening, conflict and play. Not because there is no reward in watching a student finally figure out how to perform a task on a computer or tool. But because the reward of seeing a student rediscovering play as a way of learning new ways of looking at things has…. practical purpose. One observes in workers who play, an intense focus on being in the moment. Any creation, progress or understanding that results from play holds more value and joy than those derived from other means. Even better, the outcome of playful creativity burns itself into memory in a manner that not only ensures long term retention, but people engaged in play tend to want to repeat the experience.

Play is like yoga for the mind. If an organization allows their workers to take some time to stretch and work their muscles during the day, they should also let them stretch those latent muscles of the mind as well – with play. In time, those people will naturally use play to get past any blocks in the advancement of ideas. In a perfect world, corporations would employ a gamer in residence, or improviser in residence to teach, mentor and guide groups in play, playful creativity and brainstorming.

4 thoughts on “How to Learn to Listen

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