To start today’s blog post, I’d like to get a suggestion from the audience. Just yell out the first thing that comes to mind.
“Risk Mitigation!” “Culture!” “Leadership!”
Okay, great! We will now talk about Improvisation and Risk Mitigation, Culture & Leadership.
Hi, I’m Ronnie Feldman, President of Learnings & Entertainments, a creative services and content provider that focuses on improving corporate communication through the use of improvisation and purposeful humor. I had pleasure of leading an improv workshop at this past years SCCE Compliance & Ethics Institute, where we had 350 GRC professionals participate in some improv exercises focusing on communication, collaboration and leadership. We had lots of laughs – because improv is fun – but we also started making connections between the wonderful world of theater and improvisation and the compliance community. There are actually quite a few skills and philosophies that professional improvisers use to be successful on stage that can help the GRC professional (and leaders in general) communicate more effectively to build a culture of collaboration, transparency and trust. The fine folks at SCCE asked if I would expound upon these concepts in blog form, which we will be doing here over the next several months. We hope you enjoy.
Improvisation – An Introduction
What is Improv? It is the art of making something out of nothing. It is thinking on your feet, creating on the spot, off the top of your head. It is not, however, the art of being funny. On stage, funny is often the byproduct of good improv, because of the unexpected connections and spontaneity. Funny people who are good improvisers often get famous – Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell to name a few. They tend to be great performers. They also tend to be great listeners, great supporters, great collaborators, great storytellers, and they are experts at being non-judgmental of themselves and others. They are fearless and creative and engaging. They are comfortable being uncomfortable so their natural personality and wit can come out. There are many exercises that improvisers practice (yes practice) that help them build these skills. These are muscles that can be developed…by anyone. Some lessons are philosophical and some are tactical. We’re going to introduce and unpack some of these and translate their applicability to the GRC professional.
Listen Like a Thief
Improvisers, like therapists and bartenders, tend to be great listeners. It’s crucial to creating successful material on stage, in the moment, in collaboration with others. An improviser needs to be a sponge. We need to react to all information presented, both verbal and physical. All we have on stage is each other and the information we are giving off needs to be picked up as you build your adventure together. Each action provides information and its your job to keep the ball in the air. You listen with your whole body – with your ears, with eye contact with your body language. You listen by staying in the moment and not planning ahead. The more perceptive you are the more you’ll pick up your scene partners intentions and the more quickly you’ll connect to “find the game” or get to meaning or advance the action to create something interesting and perhaps even memorable. This can’t happen if you are in your head trying to think of funny things to say. It’s all about listening…reaaally listening, so that you can absorb, understand, react and build. Take in every word, gesture and emotion. Listen like a thief.
Listen to understand…don’t wait to talk. We call this “Active Listening.” This may be obvious but it is harder than you think. There are many reasons why we don’t actively listen. You are an authority figure and you want to start formulating an intelligent response. You are busy and short on time. You’ve heard the question before and you already know the answer. You are a far more interesting person and their story reminds you of a better story involving you and you’d much rather tell your story involving you then listen to their boring story that doesn’t involve you. Newsflash…you like them but you like you more! 🙂 We all do this, which is why active listening is a skill and it requires attention and regular practice.
An Improv Exercise
There is an active listening exercise where partners are asked to have a simple conversation and the only rule is that you have to start your sentence with the last word the previous person ended with. “You have brown hair” – “Hair is something I used to have on my head” – “Head and Shoulders is a dandruff shampoo” – “Shampoo is a fun word to say” …and so on. It is not important that this makes linear sense. There is no right or wrong answer. The point of the exercise is to force people to listen all the way to the end of the sentence. You cannot pre-plan. You have to stay in the moment. You can practice this in your daily life. It can really help you in a number of ways.
An improv colleague and I held a workshop for about 40 legal professionals and he started by asking each person to introduce themselves and say an interesting fact and we went around the room for 15 minutes or so. He thanked everybody and then proceeded to go back to the beginning and said hello and welcome to each of the 40 people by name from memory. Amazing! I asked him how he does this, and he said, it’s really just active listening…listening all the way to the end, pausing and internalizing, before responding and moving on. Now he is ridiculously good at it, but the point is the same.
Translating to GRC
For the GRC professional there are a lot of benefits to active listening from a professional develop standpoint as well as for corporate communications.
Trust. When you stop listening and start to pre-plan what you are going to say, you essentially “check out.” We’ve all seen people’s eyes glaze over when we are talking to them. We see this! Yet somehow we think we get away with it as we smile and look at the face of the person across from us as we silently think about how great the truffle fries were at dinner last night and how we need to stop off and buy milk on the way home. People are perceptive. They see that you are not engaged and this actually undermines your authority and undermines trust. As a GRC professional you are in the business of building trust, so active listening is critical to success.
Information. When you don’t listen all the way to the end, obviously you miss information. You miss words, gestures, and inflections that can provide meaning and context. This becomes doubly important when you are dealing with weighty, complex issues. When people are nervous or unsure, they often front-load conversations with a lot of small talk before landing on their desired purpose. I’ve heard this referred to as the “doorknob confession” or the “bye-bye bombshell” where the critical information is revealed just before fleeing the room. Active listening ensures you are present and engaged and capturing the full meaning of conversations so you can make better decisions.
Active Listening – Some Tips
- Make Eye Contact, Smile and Nod – Make the person in front of you feel important…because they are. You are grateful for the information, no matter what it is – see Improv Toolkit Lesson #2 Attitude of Gratitude.
- Pause, Breathe, & Don’t Interrupt – Don’t be afraid of silence. Give yourself a beat before responding. This will help you from interrupting and offering solutions before receiving the full context.
- Repeat Back What You Just Heard – restating what you heard is a great check-in moment to ensure understanding prior to thinking through solutions and responses.
- Ask Clarifying Questions – This is another way of getting to understanding prior to jumping in to solutions and recommendations.
Organizational Active Listening. It’s important to note that active listening also applies to your organizational voice. One way to actively listen to your employees is to regularly ask for feedback, repeat back, report on and comment on what is happening within the organization. This can be responding to an annual culture survey or a survey about what they think about your training (be afraid…very afraid). It can mean posting questions from the helpline (ensuring anonymity) and sharing back policies and helpful advice. It can mean asking employees to vote on what topics they are interest in/need more information on and then aligning your training/tips/updates to those priorities. It can mean circulating relevant articles in the news or case studies in a company newsletters or on intranet sites and asking for thoughts and opinions. It can mean having periodic management “listening sessions” with the sole purpose of gathering feedback to uncover problems and to take the temperature of the organization following an event. Listening is a skill that requires practice and effort. But it’s essential to building trust and improving corporate culture.
As they say in the biz….Annnnd…scene!
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