Lisa Merchant, Second City Toronto

Lisa Merchant is an actor, comedian and improvisation instructor with Second City in Toronto.

What’s the most important qualification for any job, the key ingredient of every strong team and the one skill that is indispensable to employers?

Communication skills, of course. Also known as, soft skills, social skills, conversation skills.

Every conversation is an improvisation, which makes us all improvisors, not just comedians, jazz musicians and politicians.

I had the honour of spending a few life-transforming hours in an improvisation workshop with Lisa Merchant from Second City. Lisa is a Canadian celebrity who’s won three comedy awards and been nominated for a Gemini.

She taught us how to have the kind of conversations that build trust and spark relationships.

It turns out that improvisation isn’t just about making stuff up to get a laugh. It’s actually about co-creating mutually beneficial conversations.

Lisa led us through a series of games that showed us how to make small adjustments in our words have a huge impact on how others react to us.

I can’t wait to share these skills because they are critical for success in just about anything – team building, job interviews, employee recruiting and retention.

8 improvisation techniques to dramatically improve your communication skills

Don’t plan what to say next

Improvisation is about staying in the moment and listening fully to your partner. Try not to plan your response while the person is speaking. Simply accept what they’ve shared with gratitude. Then respond spontaneously.

You don’t need to agree with the person’s opinion

If their statement seems inappropriate you might say, “I know it wasn’t your intent, but that made me uncomfortable” or “I’m confused by what you said.”

This approach might make them think twice about speaking to you that way in the future.

See How to respond to an offensive comment at work for more tips on dealing with difficult people.

Be grateful to the person for communicating with you

In one exercise we said “thank you” before we responded to whatever the person just said. For example, let’s say an unhappy person calls you with a complaint. First, thank them for bringing the situation to your attention. Then you can explore the issue and make sure you understand the problem they are struggling with.

Don’t interrupt

When you interrupt someone before they’re finished expressing their complete idea, they’ll think (rightly) that you’re not really that interested in what they’re saying.

Replace “yes but” with “yes and”

Try it. Answering with “yes, but…” essentially shuts down the other person’s idea. Saying “yes and…” means that you listened and you’re willing to explore the idea. It shows that you’re open to new ideas.

This is where creativity really starts flowing and solutions are discovered.

Mirror what the other person said

A powerful way to show that you’re listening and truly want to understand is to restate what the person just said, but in your own words. For example, when the person finishes speaking you could say something like, “I hear you saying that” and paraphrase their point to make sure you understand.

Don’t over think it

While you’re busily thinking up the most appropriate and impressive response, the other person can see in your eyes that you’ve tuned out. It’s better to listen fully, let them finish.

It’s okay if a brilliant response doesn’t pop out of your mouth immediately because you already gained some major points but giving them your full attention while they were speaking.

If you’re not sure what to say next, simply thank them for sharing that thought and ask them to clarify what they’ve said to make sure you really understand.

Replace “should” with “could”

This is huge. When you begin a sentence with “should” it’s like pointing your finger at them. Beginning with “could” feels way more collaborative and helpful.

Don’t take yourself too seriously

If you mess up and say something that falls flat, no problem. Acknowledge it, laugh, learn, and try something new.

This builds rapport because it’s more fun to speak with someone who’s relaxed and not too obsessed with being right all the time.

If you forget everything else, just remember one simple thing…

How you make people feel is more important than what you say

Improvisation is about supporting the other person and co-creating a positive experience free of judgment. You’re not in the conversation to compete and prove your superiority. You’re in the conversation to help the other person express themselves fully so they can feel more positive about the situation.

Have you experienced an improvisation workshop? Do you think that this approach can improve your personal and professional relationships? Please leave a comment :)

Give it a try — Training classes at The Second City Toronto

The class will fly by, you’ll have lots of laughs, and you’ll be a better person when you leave.

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