Improvisation – Lessons in Learning to Listen

Stage Door

  • Listening to what is being said
  • Connecting with your stakeholders
  • Facilitating constructive conversations
  • Synthesizing ideas

All critical abilities of a successful business analyst – and leader.

Where can you go to learn or enhance these skills? You could attend traditional education courses, participate in professional development programs, or you could sign up for improvisation class like I did. Improv is about understanding and engagement: listening to, connecting with and building on conversations with others.

Along with 12 other students, I kicked off my 8-weeks of three-hour classes last Sunday. By the time the first session was over, I was exhausted. But I am convinced that once I complete level 1, I will have made significant improvements in some very basic – but critical – business analysis skills.

The key element in improv on which everything else is built, is the concept of “yes and”. Regardless of how strange an “offer” or idea is, you never say no but accept and build on it. For example, we did an exercise called “the gift” where two individuals exchange imaginary boxes in a variety of sizes. The recipient “opens” the box and describes the contents with an explanation of why this is a perfect gift. The giver builds on this response and adds further justification. The humour in improv comes from the absurdity that grows out of this continuing escalation. No one in the exchange ever rejects the reasoning.

Why is “yes and” such an important tool for business analysts? While we are not generally looking to be funny when working with our stakeholders, we are seeking to gain agreement, support and commitment for the work that needs to get done. By avoiding “no”, we can maintain positive, open channels of communication and minimize resistance to the change we are facilitating.

Successful (and funny) improv happens because participants listen to each other and respond positively and collaboratively. The same thing holds true for BAs in discussions with stakeholders. How many of us have seen people disconnect and disengage when their contributions are ignored.

The class instructor helped us practice our listening abilities by utilizing a number of different games for the group to play. Below is an example which I feel could also be used for a session icebreaker as it engages everyone very quickly in a positive activity.

Red Ball

The team stands in a circle, facing each other. One member starts the game by cupping his/her hands around an imaginary ball, stating “Red Ball”, throwing it towards someone, who catches the ball and says “Red Ball”. That person then repeats “Red Ball” and then throws it to another member of the circle. This continues for a while until everyone has the hang of the exercise. Since everyone is following the same ball (even though it is imaginary), we are always making eye contact with the individual with the ball. Our listening skills are fairly focused.

But what happens when you introduce another ball?

Now, in addition to the red ball, we had a green ball that was being thrown around. Same idea: thrower says “Green Ball” tosses it to another member of the circle who is looking at him/her. The receiver announces “Green Ball”, makes eye contact with another member, repeats “Green Ball”, and passes it to that individual. Now with two balls in the air, you need to ensure you make eye contact with the thrower and receiver. If you are effectively listening, you can keep both balls in the air successfully. Depending on how good your group is, you can even add a “Purple Ball” to the mix.

Listening is so fundamental to human interaction, we often forget how easy it is to do it badly. Cell phones, email, text messages and just general noise in our lives have impacted our attention spans, causing us to disengage unintentionally from the people with which we need to connect. Techniques like improvisation can help us positively reconnect by improving our focus and listening skills.

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