The Beauty of Social Improvisation
By Steven Burns
Someone asked me the other day what I thought was the most useful thing to practice in order to become more socially skilled and confident around people. There's lot's of things but if I was to pick one it would have to be, learn the art of social improvisation...
About 6 months ago I took a sudden notion to take acting lessons. I'm not exactly sure where it came from as I have never harboured any secret urge to become the next Tom Hanks or Robert De-niro but for some reason it is something I've been strangely attracted too for quite some time... So I found a local drama school and enrolled on a 6 month adult acting course...
Up until the time I enrolled I would have described myself as someone who liked structure. Someone who liked or rather 'needed' at a certain level to know what was going to happen before it happened. While I wasn't a complete stickler for rules, procedures and regulations there was a large part of me that was not comfortable unless I was 'super prepared' before I did something new... If I was giving a presentation I had to have everything written out word for word, rehearsed thoroughly and laid out on cue cards before I felt confident I would do a good job.
If I was coaching a client I had to have the full session (or at least how I envisioned it would go) laid out so I knew where things were going step by step... I wasn't inflexible and rarely stuck to the plan exactly, but I was pretty rigid in my belief that, in order for things to go well, I had to prepare to the nth degree and follow some pre-prepared format or technique.
So when it came to the acting classes my expectation was that I could adopt a similar approach... I could find out the lines I was supposed to say and the way I was supposed to move and rehearse them over and over again until they were hard-wired in.
That would work right? Actually, I couldn't have been more wrong... Little did I know that most of the course was focused on what is known in the acting world as 'devising'. In other words we had to create something out of absolutely nothing. No preparation, no prior planning, just pure improvisation...
I walked in on day one and, after the initial warm up, the tutor gave us all an object (I was given a straw hat) and asked us to come up with a 5 minute performance on anything we liked. Still being from the planning mind set I naively asked her to give us a bit more of a step by step guide as to what she was looking for... She looked at me with a wry smile and said, "That's the whole point of improvisation, you don't get step by step instructions!"
I've got to admit I was initially a bit freaked out by this. No structure, no step by step instructions, the loosest of guidelines. How was I going to come up with anything worth showing?
The interesting thing was, though, after I got over this initial anxiety I found myself in a place that I hadn't been in for a long time. A place that was blissfully free from restraints with unlimited possibilities... The place that you naturally go to when you are improvising, where no mistakes can be made and there is no right or wrong.
Because so often we can try to control or pre-empt social situations way too much rather than learning to become comfortable with not knowing what is going to happen before it happens then responding in the moment and allowing things to progress naturally.
Maybe it's a presentation, a network meeting, a party or a date we can often be governed by rules and procedures as to how we think things should go or what the right or wrong things to say and do might be.
Of course it's great to be prepared and have guidelines but when you really get down to it there is no substitute to being comfortable just going with the flow and responding, in the moment, to what is going on around us... It's the place where all the best and most natural stuff is create..
Because as soon as you add the human element into anything, it's impossible to predict how things are going to go so while it's always advisable to do your homework it's more important to get comfortable not knowing what's going to happen before it happens, going with it and then re-adjusting to suit.
So, you maybe wondering, how does this all relate to social confidence?
It relates a lot... It doesn't really matter what the situation is. Whether you're having small talk, socializing at a party, giving a presentation or talking with a client the more comfortable you are at improvising socially the more confident you will be that everything will work out in the end.
Think about it... it's one thing to be prepared and confident in your own material or in what you are going to say but it's another thing to also be confident in your ability to make use of whatever is going on your environment irrespective of where, when, what or with whom.
It's what I call the 'Ross Noble effect'... Ross Noble is an English comedian who pretty much improvises his full show, He has some common themes that run through them but 75% of his act is made up on the spot or in response to what people say in the audience.
Of course you don't have to be as good as Ross but just think how much more confident and skilled you would be socially if you developed some of this skill for yourself. Well here's a great way to get you started... it's called The TV Free Association Game...
- Switch on your TV to any channel and listen to the topic being discussed.
- Now start talking about something topic. It doesn't matter if it makes sense just keep going in free flow.
- Now start talking about something that is related to the topic. Again, it doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense you are in improvisation mode,
- Keep doing this for at least 10 minutes. You'll be amazed at how easy it suddenly becomes to talk about pretty much anything.
So if you are a stickler for the rules or tend to have to be 'super prepared' before doing most things one of the most useful things you can do to become more confident and skilled around people is improve your Social Improvisation.
Steven Burns is an NLP Trainer from Scotland, well known as "The People's Coach," and has recently started specializing in helping people let go of social fears and become more socially confident. Check out his latest work at Solutions in Mind
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