This past Sunday morning, I broke two of my weekend habits: I was awake and dressed before noon and I was talking about work. Six other women also chose to spend the morning of the Super Bowl in a Brooklyn classroom, role-playing professional dilemmas in an “Improv for Essential Workplace Conversations” class that cost $40 and lasted two hours.
Before this class, I associated improv with the sketch comedy group on my college campus that performed late at night to a sparse crowd. Improv for professionals, though, is led by The Engaging Educator, a team of teachers that operates nationwide, and it was less free-for-all entertainment and more of a guided career coaching session. We began the course sitting in a row of white chairs that faced a chalkboard. I was not the only participant who brought a notebook.
It turns out work and improv have a lot in common. “How do we remain in the moment and move the conversation forward?” Lawrese Brown, a facilitator with The Engaging Educator since 2015, said before the class began. “Even what they do in comedy ― the listening, the responding, the flexibility ― those are the tools we use in the workplace when we’re having difficult conversations, when we’re trying to influence others, and overall when we’re presenting.”
In the improv for professionals class, I learned how to withstand constant pushback
Before our first role-play, we each told the group the biggest challenge we have with difficult work conversations. Four of the women were worried that they are seen as too harsh or too lenient, not wanting to “come off as a robot,” as one woman put it, but all wanting to have their feedback taken more seriously.
I answered that I wanted advice on how to even start hard work conversations, and wondered privately if men attending this type of class would have these same preoccupations. Research has found that women can face unfair extra scrutiny on their leadership compared with men, and need to be seen as team players to be leaders. “Or maybe, the male colleagues I have known that need this class are not the kind of people who would volunteer their weekend to be better communicators,” I thought wryly.
After sharing why we were there, we paired up and practiced initiating pushback in scenarios that involved a condescending employee, a peer who piles extra work on us, and a boss who criticizes our work. I became a junior colleague who called out my supervisor for a second time with a snarky “Are you not attending the meeting?” My partner Angela, who works in fashion, played the supervisor who needed to address my tone. When we played these roles in front of the group, Angela, who, like some of the other women, asked to be identified by first name only, focused on how she could be more supportive of me.
A people pleaser even in fake scenarios, I immediately agreed to Angela’s proposed solution for how she would help me gain ownership to handle meetings on my own and have more check-ins if I felt “abandoned,” as I dramatically put it. After our fictional one-on-one, Angela and I both wondered what would have gone differently if I had challenged her more, or how we could have talked about my sarcastic tone without labeling it.
“The number one reason why people don’t have these kind of conversations is they are afraid of what the other person will say and they are afraid of the 'no.'”
Watching our role-play, Brown pointed out room for improvement.
“You’re a rescuer,” she told Angela, saying that by giving me a solution right away, she was not inviting me to solve the problem on my own and was giving herself more work. Brown was citing a work archetype from Peter Block’s book, “Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work.” According to Block, the rescuer is someone who believes “the path to power, influence and gaining some control over the situation is to save other people’s lives.” Brown also noted that if I had pushed back on having my emotions labeled as snarky, Angela could use a more neutral statement like, “There was a tone I noticed.”
Later, I asked Angela about the “rescuer” label. Angela is a manager who touches base with her direct reports every week and said the comment resonated. “If they come to me with a problem, I am there to solve it,” Angela said. “And I don’t take the time to sit and listen to them as much, or ask them how they think it could be solved. I’m always trying to fix it. Honestly, that’s my life in general.”
How to give feedback without sparking defensive judgment was a general concern among those of us in class. To a separate pair, Brown said that stating a colleague was unprofessional could be up for debate, but saying that your colleague was late by 15 minutes was not. If we were in a more corporate environment where feelings were not welcomed, we could focus on how the unwanted behavior was impacting the outcome of a project, Brown said.
Across each activity, Brown validated our feelings and summed them up into quotes you could pin on a Pinterest board. “It’s OK to take pauses,” “People get upset at givers when they stop giving,” and “Yes means nothing without implementation,” were among the nuggets of advice Brown gave that prompted others to nod as they wrote them down.
In work improv, you get comfortable getting uncomfortable
Not knowing whether a conversation will go my way makes me squirm. During one activity, we practiced how to endure pushback to our ideas.
“The number one reason why people don’t have these kind of conversations is they are afraid of what the other person will say and they are afraid of the ‘no,’” Brown told me before the class. “It can feel like competition. That’s how we make it seem: ‘I have to prove that I’m right.’ Or the other person wants to prove that they’re right. The great thing about improv is getting people in the mindset of collaboration.”
We stood up in two rows and volleyed ideas at each other. One partner stated a work problem like a dismissive boss or a project that fell through and the other partner offered ideas that needed to be turned down three times before a solution could be reached. Brown emphasized that the goal for this activity was to not let the “noes” stop us from having the conversation. “Your only task is to keep going,” Brown said.
Telling a group of strangers about your work problems, whether they are real or fictionalized, can put you on the spot. “I felt a little vulnerable, but I think that’s part of the reason I keep taking the classes,” said Sarah Whinnem, a product design leader in my class who has taken other improv courses at the Brooklyn Brainery. “It gets less and less uncomfortable over time.”
At the beginning of class, conversations were stilted. By the end of the class, we were swapping tips. Whinnem told us to say, “Tell me more about that” if we needed to buy ourselves time in a conversation. After we wrapped up, Stephanie, a tech executive, told me that she wished she didn’t have to go to an improv class on a Sunday to learn something so fundamental about how to communicate feedback ― it’s something she should have learned at the start of her career, she said.
The anonymity of the class can also be freeing. Angela and Sandra, another fashion professional, knew each other before class and told me they would have been less honest if they did the class with actual co-workers. Turning to Angela after class, Sandra said, “Half of the battle is feeling comfortable in the situation, right? Why don’t you play my boss when I have to have the difficult conversation about asking for a raise?”
“Right,” Angela agreed.
Angela and Sandra, like me, wanted to keep the conversation going.