The Art of Coaching Improvisationally
“The five minutes before the coaching conversation begins are the most important five minutes of the whole encounter.”
I remember hearing this in coach training and feeling surprised. Surely the wrap-up is most critical, I thought to myself, in which actions steps are articulated and clarified. Or, the initial check-in, which sets the stage for everything that is to come. As a coach, I now see the wisdom of this instruction. If I come into the appointment distracted and scattered, I cannot be of service. In my pre-conversation time, I try to center myself, prepare to listen deeply without agenda, and most of all, trust the process and my role in it. There’s always a bit of nervous excitement, too, because I have no idea what will happen and where we’ll end up at the conclusion of our conversation.
Interestingly, that anticipatory energy is exactly what I feel when preparing to walk out on a stage to do improv comedy.
I began studying improv several years ago as a way to have fun and also rein in some of my perfectionistic, controlling tendencies. In improv, two or more people create something on stage together—something that didn’t exist before, something neither person could have predicted or created on their own. Since then, I’ve been struck with how much of life is an improvisation. As Amy Poehler has said, “We all think we’re in control of our lives, and that the ground is solid beneath our feet, but we are so wrong. Improvising reminds you of that over and over again.”
Here are just a few tools of improv and how they can help in the coaching relationship.
The Power of Yes-And
The cardinal rule of improv is to say “Yes-And”—to accept what is offered by a scene partner and to build on it. Acceptance doesn’t mean we necessarily agree with or even “like” the offer, but on stage, it’s our job to receive it as reality and offer our own contribution in response.
Yes-and is a vital approach to life. The truth is, we’re not in control of our lives. The unforeseen happens. Plans fall through. Marriages end. The plant closes down. Loved ones die. Much of coaching is helping people come to terms with life as it is and moving toward life as it can be. By thinking improvisationally, we can help people become more awake, creative, resilient and ready to play—even (and perhaps especially) when life doesn’t go according to plan.
The coaching relationship itself is an improvisation. There are surprises and detours. There are juicy questions that unlock an unexpected insight. A spirit of Yes-And can be a fruitful orientation for coaches.
The Power of Listening
If you’ve seen hilarious improv performed on stage, it might seem counterintuitive to say that listening is the key to success. But good improv flows when the players are tuned into one another. We simply can’t improvise—we can’t say Yes-And—without paying attention, without seeing the person in front of us and hearing what’s actually being communicated. It’s one of the greatest ways of honoring another human being. There’s nothing better than having someone acknowledge and embrace an idea we offered onstage…or in life. We feel heard, seen and valued.
It’s hard to overstate how countercultural—and important—good listening is. We live in a sound-bite culture, punctuated with bulleted lists, talking points and hot takes. We sacrifice so much to sound-bite communication: Mystery. Subtlety. Even basic surprise. Perhaps you, too, have been struck by the gratitude in a client’s voice simply because they felt deeply heard. Even when my questions didn’t seem all that powerful or my comments all that insightful, the act of listening helps unlock deeper wisdom. Sometimes listening is enough.
The Power of Small Steps
Some coaching clients don’t know which path to take and need a coach to help them discern. Many of my clients seem to know what they want out of life but feel stuck to take the right steps. Here improv can also be of help. There’s a wise saying at Second City Training Center in Chicago: “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” When we’re improvising with others, we don’t arrive with a fully formed idea and plunk it down. We each show up with one piece, and together we build. Forward momentum, not precision or cleverness, is key to keeping the action going. That means that “good enough” is the gold standard for improvisers—and for coaches.
Certainly, our lives can experience quantum leaps—the risky decision or the audacious challenge laid down by a bold coach. But most of life consists of small, faithful steps. Improv—and improvisational coaching—can help us get where we hope to go.