December 2, 2020

Corner Office: WET Design and the Improv Approach to Listening

Q. What’s unusual about your company’s culture?

A. We have three classrooms and a full-time curriculum director who teaches all the time and also brings in outside instructors. One of the really fun classes we do is improv.

Q. Why improv?

A. Improv, if properly taught, is really about listening to the other person, because there’s no script. It’s about responding. I was noticing that we didn’t have a lot of good communication among our people.

If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening.

That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.

So I got this crazy idea of bringing in someone to teach an improv class. At first, everybody had an excuse, because it’s kind of scary to stand up in front of people and do this. But now we’ve got a waiting list because word has spread that it’s really cool.

You’re in an emotionally naked environment. It’s like we’re all the same. We all can look stupid. And it’s an amazing bonding thing, plus it’s building all these communication skills. You’re sort of in this gray space of uncertainty. Most of us don’t like to be uncertain — you know, most of us like to be thinking what we’re going to say next. You get your mind into a space where you say, “I’m really enjoying that I don’t know what he’s going to ask me next, and I’m going to be open and listening and come back.”

We’ve got graphic designers, illustrators, optical engineers, Ph.D. chemists, special effects people, landscape designers, textile designers. You get all these different disciplines that typically you would never find under one roof — even making a movie — and so you have to constantly be finding these ways to have people connect.

So we do things like improv, and I think they really have developed our culture.

Q. What else?

A. We also encourage people to put their ideas on our walls. Or if you’ve got a drawing, you can stick a couple of magnets on it. The point is to get people to put their stuff out where other people can see it. We don’t want a culture of, “That’s my idea. I don’t want anybody to see it. Maybe they’ll find a flaw in it.”

I had a teacher once who said, “Whenever you guys are sitting here, and you realize that you’ve made a mistake on something you’re working with, I want you to applaud yourself.” He said: “That will accomplish a couple of things. First of all, instead of saying, ‘Oh, I made a mistake, I’m never going to learn this stuff anyway,’ you’re going to reward yourself because you caught the mistake before I did.” We all rolled our eyes in the class, but I’ve never forgotten that.

So one of the things I will do is to start some meetings by saying, “Let me tell you where I just screwed up.” That sets the tone of, we’ve got to put our mistakes out there. They don’t call it “learn by trial and success.” You learn by trial and error.

Q. What else have you done through the years to set the tone for your culture?

A. Early on, I decided that whenever somebody comes into my office and starts blaming something on another department, I will say: “Really? Let’s get them in here. Hold that thought.” It’s just like with your children at home — you don’t want serial tattletaling. You get everybody together, and then suddenly people are saying that maybe they exaggerated a bit, and things weren’t quite as bad as they said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=772219d573e56931c6855f01ed448e75

Speak Your Mind