Improv in Facilitation – Episode 20

In this episode, Beth Cougler Blom talks with Brett Macdonald about learning and using improv skills and techniques in facilitation, and how they may be more available to people who work with groups than we originally might think.

Beth and Brett also talk about:

  • The life and work benefits of learning improv
  • How people can get over the fear of learning improv
  • Specific improv elements and techniques that facilitators can use
  • How to start learning applied improv for use in facilitation and elsewhere

Engage with Brett Macdonald

Other Links from the Episode

Connect with the Facilitating on Purpose Podcast

Connect with Beth Cougler Blom

Podcast cover art by Emily Johnston of Artio Design Co.
Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

[Episode intro]
Beth
Hello, thank you so much for being here. I am excited to bring to you this episode, number 20, Improv in Facilitation. My guest today is Brett Macdonald. Brett is passionate about bringing people together. Her work, rooted in improv, brings groups together to connect, to collaborate, and to infuse joy into their days. Brett is actually a very joyful person to talk to. [laughs] So I think you’re going to enjoy my conversation with Brett just because of that. But of course, the topic of improv is so fascinating to talk about, because it’s one of those things that maybe if you’ve been leading courses and workshops for a while, you’ve been really digging into hard into your content, maybe activities related to that content, but you haven’t maybe actually gone and looked at other fields to see what you can learn from them and apply them back to facilitating learning. So this is what I talk about today with Brett is how we can draw on skills and elements and techniques from the world of improv and apply it to our work facilitating learning with groups.

When I interviewed Johnnie Moore, who was episode 18 of the podcast, he mentioned too how improv was really foundational and instrumental in him developing facilitation skills. And it was great because when I had that conversation with Johnnie, in the back of my mind I already knew that I was going to be talking with Brett and I knew that it was going to come soon after – actually just two episodes later now – to learn more from Brett about improv itself and really dig into that topic. Improv is something that I’ve only dabbled into a little bit in my facilitation career. I must admit that it has scared me because of what I think I know about improv looking at the improv comedy world. But when I’ve tried improv techniques in facilitation, being led by someone else – I’ve actually done some work with Brett and done some work with Caitlin Frost, who, when I went to take art of hosting as a participant with Caitlin Frost, and Chris Corrigan, Caitlin had some improv things that she did with us and I was kind of scared, but it was really fun and fine in the end. So I’ve been dabbling a little bit here and there in improv, and I guess I was always trying to get over that fear of doing improv in my facilitation work. And, you know what? This conversation with Brett has helped me really think about using the skills of improv more and almost helped me figure out that the whole community of improv is really about building safety in learning and doing that work, which is really, really exciting! It actually made me feel so much better about learning improv skills to complement and to enhance my facilitation. So I hope that’s what you’re going to feel as well when you listen to the conversation with Brett. Here’s Brett Macdonald, around improv in facilitation. Enjoy the show.

Beth Cougler Blom
Brett, it’s so nice to see you. Thanks for joining me.

Brett Macdonald
Thanks for inviting me along. I’m excited to be here.

Beth
I wanted to get us started with something that you actually said to me in person when we saw each other. As we think about our episode around improv and facilitation, you said that a lot of people don’t really understand like what that even means, or they maybe get it wrong or something you said something like that. Can you kind of start us off situating us with what is improv as it relates to facilitation or to training I guess?

Brett
Yeah, for sure. The first thing I’ll say is I think a lot of people when they think of improv, they think of comedic improv and that it’s all about jokes and finding games. And I think the touch point for a lot of people is the show Whose Line Is It Anyway, which is an amazing show full of incredibly talented improvisers who are very witty and quick and funny and incredibly talented. And they’ve also been improvising for decades and decades. And so for me, and for many people, it’s a much bigger world than just comedy. And so I think that’s one thing I like to really share with people is you have all these different let’s say like threads of improv. You have genre based improv and storytelling improv and as well as comedy improv you have…yeah, so there’s all these different wide areas and directions that improv can go into, but at the core of all of it is really about building trust with the people that you’re with, and being able to listen and respond. And so the big sort of, let’s say, quote of improv, a principle of improv, is “Yes, And” which many people attribute to improv and some people have no idea it’s connected to improv. But “Yes, And” is truly Yes, I accept your idea, and I’m going to build on it. So improv when it comes down to facilitation is helping people connect with each other and have these constructive conversations that move forward.

Beth
I’ll come back to the concept of “Yes, And” because I think it maybe is the one principle that many of us might know if we haven’t heard of anything else about improv. But let’s go back to maybe you if you don’t mind. Where did you get the interest in developing skills in improv? How did it start for you?

Brett
Yeah, so I grew up doing theatre. I did musical theatre every summer and a bit of improv in high school. But it wasn’t, I guess, when I studied theatre in Vancouver, I got a diploma in theatre. And then I ended up becoming a teacher and moved overseas and was not teaching drama or improv. I was teaching young students. And while I was living in Berlin I came across an English improv company, who was putting on an eight week course with the show at the end. And so I thought, Oh, this is a fantastic way to get back into improv. And that was it for me, like I just was hooked 100% and ended up from there, founding my own group and finding trainers and going to festivals. And as that journey was happening, my friends and my group, we would talk about how we were noticing changes in ourselves when we were in work situations or in personal situations in the way that our mindset was shifting. And the way that we were becoming more curious, and more able to really hear what people were saying and slowing down and being more in the moment. And we just started noticing all of these overlaps with our own personal lives and professional lives as well.

So that’s where the divergence of moving into facilitation using improv has come from. It started at the core of improv, which is something that I for me is really important to know is that I am an improviser who uses improv in facilitation as well. So that’s kind of my journey.

Beth
And I love how you were noticing the impact of developing those skills, both in your work and in your personal life, too, because I think…I often think about facilitation, you know, it’s not just a work thing. Like we can use the skills of facilitation broadly in our personal lives and our relationships and so on. So it seemed that you were also seeing and had maybe hard evidence or something [smiles] of that connection for yourself in all the facets of your life.

Brett
Yeah. I love that. Yeah. Because we’re facilitating in all different situations in our lives, right. There’s yeah, there’s that professional one where you’re intentionally trying to teach something or help people experience something. But throughout our lives, we’re constantly…when we’re in conversations or in groups of people there’s a tiny bit of thread of facilitation in there as well that we can use.

Beth
Yeah, absolutely. So you had this theatre background and so you saw this course come up, and I bet you know, it sounded like you’re like, Yeah, right. You know, you were right on for that and just there was no hesitation. What would you say to the people that kind of want to get into it, but they’re sort of scared or they don’t really know or just or they’re flat out fearful of the whole thing? [Laughs]

Brett
Well, I always say go for it. Actually, one of my favourite kind of quotes from improv is jump and figure out the parachute later. And so I think that improv is something that everybody can do. It’s something that we do in our lives every day. Everything we do is really quite improvised. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in a day. And so it’s taking that and putting it into a safe little space with a group of people who are all completely unaware of what’s about to happen because you’re making it up on the spot. No one knows what’s about to happen. Of course, you have a teacher there or a facilitator and they are going to guide you through exercises.

But in terms of what stories are going to emerge, or what moments of laughter and surprise are going to happen, none of us know. So we’re all in this boat together in that sense. People often say, Oh, I’m too shy, I can’t do improv or, or I’m too quiet. And on the flip side, I have people say, oh, this person would be great at improv. They’re so funny. And I think what’s interesting for me is the people who get the most out of improv are the shy and quiet ones.

Beth
Really?

Brett
Yeah because I find the loud, funny ones, they want to be there, they want to be the centre of it. Often, in my experience, they want to be heard, they want to be funny, they want people to look at them. Whereas the shy, nervous ones are almost more introspective and they’re noticing things more. They’re more in the moment. They’re able to push themselves and take risks, a tiny bit more than perhaps that person who’s loud and overly confident and just want to be funny and laughed at. Yeah, some of my experiences with kind of those two very stereotypical differences. But improv is something that is absolutely attainable and doable by anyone. And if the facilitator and the teacher knows how to work with those improv exercises, they will be able to accommodate them to anybody to make it comfortable for those people.

Beth
Yes, you mentioned that, you know, for people learning improv, they’re making a safe space for you. So that’s what we need to do as facilitators, don’t we? We need to turn that around to our participants and make a safe space for them as they’re learning improv. So why did you feel that that was a safe space for you to learn? And maybe how then do you do that for your participants?

Brett
I think it was a safe place because one of the principle of improv is embracing failure. And so there was this permission to make mistakes. And in fact the idea that they’re not mistakes, they’re just opportunities. So no matter what I say, or what I do, it can be turned into something new and exciting. And so you learn that there’s this permission there to make mistakes and to push yourself and try things. And also know that if you’ve created this room full of people who are trusting of each other and that you are also connected to, you feel some human connection to. Within that you can take risks and step outside your comfort zone.

So I think as a facilitator, that’s one of the first things that needs to happen. Especially if you’re bringing improv in. Because many people have this reaction of, oh, I can’t do improv. That’s way too scary. I’m not funny enough. I’m too shy. I don’t want to perform. And so it’s really important that that level of trust and human connection is built first. And that can be done in any way. There’s improv exercises that can help that or you could do it using your own exercises to do that and then introduce some easy improv into there to, improv exercises.

And I think, Beth, that I’ll say one thing that maybe I haven’t said yet. The improv exercises that I use, and I encourage others to use are the exercises that improvisers use to practice to get on stage. So I don’t do performative improv in my facilitation. I’m not giving people skits and getting them to stand up in front of everyone and, you know, tell a story off the top of their head with an audience. In fact, we very rarely do anything in front of each other. We do it as a whole group, or we do it in pairs or small groups. And really, the only person observing is your partner and maybe me as I walk around the room to make sure everyone’s comfortable with what they’re doing. But the exercises we use, and most facilitators use, are the ones that those high level professional improvisers, and any improviser is using to practice skills to get on stage.

Beth
I think that really helps. I mean, I think back to the times when I’ve been in somebody else’s workshop, and you know, you do something with just a partner, and that feels easier. You know, you could have that impression that Oh, no, I’m gonna have to go up in front of the group and all of us are just…even though I’m a facilitator, I don’t want to do that either, right? Where you think I’m going to be vulnerable up there, and you can you know, your head just runs away with you, or from you around what it could look like. But yeah, you’re saying that’s, that’s not it. Basically, that picture that we have in our mind, that’s not what you’re talking about. That’s, you know, it’s so much easier to enter in. And you’re saying, to use improv to kind of gain that trust, like there are different improv exercises, it sounds like, that are a little bit easier entry points to get people comfortable as they go.

Brett
So I always start with the reflection just like we sit in a circle and I pose the theme of the day you know, if it’s active listening or something, and we each share a little bit of just what that makes us think of. And then I always, one of my first exercises doesn’t include any words. It usually is something physical. So it might be like passing a clap around the circle that has different layers within the game. So I want to get people’s bodies warmed up before I get into their minds, because I think as soon as we have to start saying words, that’s sometimes where the blocks come. But we can all clap our hands. And so that’s a nice, easy one to do. It sounds perhaps a little bit silly but you can learn so much from just passing a clap around the circle, trying to clap at the same time as someone else and then playing with the direction of the clap, and you learn so much about your body and where you’re at and how much of a risk taker you are with how quickly you want to send a clap, you know, how are you receiving the clap. So within that one exercise, there’s so much reflection that can always happen. But you’re not having to think of words and think of stories and come up with that sort of creative thing. And so there are many improv exercises like that, where you’re still doing the “Yes, And” principal and everything, but it’s physical, and you don’t have to think about anything yet. There’s games like that, that help build that trust, a shared experience, but also your risk taking and learning about how you respond in situations too.

Beth
There’s a couple different things I’m thinking about. One is that it’s contributing to group dynamics, in a sense. Like you’re not even really talking with these people, fellow participants with, but you are coming together through your movement some way. Like that is a really nice thing. And maybe we you know, I know, I probably don’t do that enough in my facilitation. For sure.

Brett
Right. And I know that as a facilitator, too, you want to make sure you’re choosing exercises that people are going to be comfortable with. And of course, in any exercise or activity you do there’s always going to be a couple people who perhaps it’s not their style. And that’s okay. And that’s why it’s important to have a variety of things too. But I think getting into our bodies is an important one, especially for doing virtual facilitation.

I always like to say like, let’s stand up. Now, remember that we have legs and arms, we’re not just a talking head and shoulders. And so getting people moving there. But also, in person, I think makes a big difference. And as a facilitator, you learn a lot about the group by observing in these games. And noticing, you start to see like, okay, that person is a real risk taker, I might have to make sure that they don’t take up more space than other people. That person is quiet, I can see already I’m going to need to help them, draw them out a little bit more. And so it’s a learning experience for all the participants but also as the facilitator, not only for yourself, and how you’re responding to it, but by observing and getting to know the group in a very quick way as well.

Beth
That’s so interesting. Would you and I’m going to kind of put ideas in your mind, but maybe you do this, would you be looking at the group going, Okay, well, maybe, you know, she’s more of a risk taker, so maybe I should put them later today with that other person? Or would you be kind of mixing the groups up based on what you see happening throughout a workshop or throughout a day?

Brett
Yep, sometimes I totally do. Sometimes I rig it a little bit. [They laugh.] I might say, okay, get into groups of three, and then I’ll, I’ll see one group, and be mmm I want to swap that up. And I’ll say, oh, so and so would you mind just swapping over here? And yeah, because I think it’s important as a facilitator. And even when it’s, you know, just a two hour workshop, or if it’s a full day, get to know those participants as much as you can so that you can adapt to the group, but also to individuals as much. Of course, it’s never going to be perfect, unless you’re working with them regularly over a long period of time. But yeah, definitely, I think that’s part of it. And that’s why knowing improv as a facilitator as well as experiencing it in your own sort of professional development is really amazing. Because you start to learn those skills of flexibility and changing in the moment and being in the moment and reading the room and listening to what the group’s telling you with their bodies or their actions and responding to that. Maybe it means changing up the workshop a tiny bit or taking or throwing that exercise out bringing this one in.

Beth
Yeah, those skills of noticing and awareness that you were talking about, that you’ve experienced in your own life and your own work. I mean, every time we step into a room – virtual or not – with a group and we try these techniques, we are hopefully heightening our awareness and kind of listening in a group sense to what’s going on and adjusting and kind of course correcting hey? Like these techniques and skills help us absolutely to do that.

Brett
Mmm mm. Exactly, exactly. And becoming more comfortable with doing that. Because I think that’s a scary thing. You’ll see sometimes with facilitators or teachers that, you know, you know, what you need to teach and you want to get through that. But having those improv tools is just another way of being able to kind of relax into the moment and go with the group flow a little bit more.

Beth
I think that is a really common challenge that people have, as I think about the questions that I get from people who are learning facilitation. A lot of the questions and the worries and the angst can be around timing, for one thing, like kind of how much does everything take, you know, take in terms of time, but then there’s that what happens when it doesn’t go as I planned in the timing or in my lesson plan or whatever. And so I like that this is something that people can grasp onto and continue to build as a skill for themselves to really be able to prepare for those moments. Because it is I mean, that’s what facilitation is, it is flexing in the moment because it never goes according to plan or [Brett: Exactly!] or you know, sometimes rarely, yeah.

Brett
Yeah, and every group is different. Even if you had delivered the exact same…I’m sure you’ve experienced, you deliver the exact same material, but to three different groups. And one of them you get through all of it. And one of them, you need to develop more things. And one of them, you’ll only get through half of it, because you have to go with what the group what that group needs as well. It’s yeah, it’s never gonna go the same every time because people are different. [laughs]

Beth
Absolutely. Now, you mentioned something about you know, you’re watching them and you’re kind of learning about your group as you go along. Do you give them options for what they can choose to do? Or do you give them an option to not do it? Or how do you kind of deal with people’s uniqueness in terms of what they will and won’t do in that moment?

Brett
Yes, so that’s something I’ve played with is this idea of saying that the games are an invitation. But I actually feel like because improv games can be so adaptable, and you can kind of go in as much as you want to, or you can play it very safe as well, I find people, if they’re given the option, they’re more likely to pull, to sit out. But if the option is not there to sit out, they’re absolutely fine to be in it, and they enjoy it. I’ve never had a workshop where let’s say I haven’t said it’s an invitation and I’ve just expected everyone to do the exercises. I’ve never had someone say, this is too uncomfortable for me, I need to sit out. And maybe that’s also saying something to the types of exercises I choose. I don’t choose ones for groups that are too scary or too risk take-y for them. It’s based on the group. So I mean, it’s an interesting question you asked, because I want to say it’s an invitation for everyone. But I also know improv is a scary thing, and many people’s brains are gonna go, you can’t do this, you need to back out right now. And I, I want them to fight through that.

Beth
Yeah, I want them to too.

Brett
Yeah, I bet you experience that too, with some things.

Beth
Well, I wrote a blog post about someone leaving a virtual workshop I had, because they were not comfortable with being in a breakout room with another person. You know, talking about a song that I had played for them to listen to, and, you know, I too, I get you and what you’re saying is, you know, I want everything to be an invitation because of course, we can’t know what the situation is that that person’s in that day. Like, if they’re in a really bad state, I’m not going to want to make them do anything. Like if that person needs to leave the workshop, you need to leave the workshop. But at the same time I talked about, I want people to push themselves, you know, to a learning edge or a little bit farther than they would normally go or because that’s where learning happens. I mean, we don’t learn when we just do the same old things all the time. So it there is that sweet spot, isn’t there, about trying to find how much we can push. But it sounds like you set the scene, you know, you’re setting it with exercises, you’re kind of leading them, building trust with the group. What do you say, though? I mean, I might facilitate or often do actually, with almost everything I do I facilitate group agreements about how, you know, we as a group would like to be together that day or that workshop or whatever. Do you facilitate group agreements? Or how do you kind of lead them in maybe verbally to as well as with your exercises you’re talking about?

Brett
The way I’ve done in the past, which I’m you know, I’m I like this idea of group agreements. And that’s something I’m kind of playing with of seeing how I could fit that in. But the way I’ve done it is, like I mentioned, I always start with, like a circle reflection. So if the theme is active listening, I might ask them to each share, so what is your name? What does active listening make you think of? Or what does it look like to you? So just a quick little like, question to get their brain going a tiny bit. And then I always ask, is there anything we need to know about you today, if you feel like sharing? Do we need to know that you’re feeling really tired today? Or that you’ve got a really bad back? So please don’t, you know, jump on my back, or I’ve got these bruises on my arm, please don’t touch my arm here. Anything, whether it’s emotional or not. And they don’t have to share. Many people just say no, I’m good. But some people are like, yeah, actually, I’m coming in. I’ve had a bit of a week, and I’m feeling a bit down. And what I always say is, I really appreciate when people feel comfortable enough to share that because not that we’re going to have a big discussion about it. But I really believe that once you’ve said it and put it into the room, we know, and now you also have sort of unloaded that a tiny bit and so we can hold that for you. And now when people are partnered with you in the back of their mind, they know that you’ve had a tough week and so they’ll be a little more gentle whether they remember or if it’s just sitting in the back of their mind. And so that’s sort of how I agree, start with that. And then I always say at the end, you know, the biggest thing for me is please be safe with each other. Be respectful of yourself and other people. I guess that’s where I talk about the invitation a little bit is respect yourself. If you’re feeling something is uncomfortable, absolutely say something respect each other and then have fun. [laughs] It’s always about having fun.

Beth
Absolutely. I like that you’re saying respect yourself as well, because that’s probably something we don’t even really think about a lot of the time. I’m sure we think, oh, let’s respect these other folks that are in the room with us. But respecting yourself, that’s a great concept.

Brett
Yeah. And that comes right down to that if something’s uncomfortable, or yeah, basically, if something is uncomfortable and you feel that in your body, you don’t have to force yourself to do it. If you don’t want to do it, you can come to talk to me, or you can let your partner know. And, and I just think having that space is nice, too.

Beth
When people come to your workshops, I think they generally know they’re coming to an improv facilitation workshop, I think, right? Is that true?

Brett
Yes, I would say usually, yeah. Sometimes we have specifically worded it away from improv and use more of the word play, but they usually know that it’s a different type of it’s a unique workshop. So yeah. [laughs]

Beth
Okay, so they’re already sort of self selecting to do maybe take a little risk or something, because they know that that’s the type of thing that’s coming to. But what about people who aren’t technically teaching improv or improv facilitation or improv skills? If we’re just, you know, we’re training about a different topic, like, I don’t even want to name a topic, but like budgeting or who knows what, like are there things that people can do to ease a group that has no idea that it’s coming their way? And I mean, you’ve already talked about I guess I’m worried about the group that just totally balks because they had no idea that this was coming. All the things you’ve been talking about lead us there, but have you ever heard of that happening, where people just do not want to do it?

Brett
I haven’t heard of it directly. But I’m sure that happens, I can absolutely see that happening. I would probably encourage a facilitator in that situation to not start with improv. Not lead with improv and say, Now we’re going to do an improv activity. But just lead them into the activity. And then once you’ve done it, and reflected and had a good time with it, let the folks know, So what you just did was an improv activity. And then see the reaction. Because once they’ve done it, they realize it’s not as scary as they perhaps thought it was. That there are many types of improv activities.

So if it’s the main focus of the workshop, this you know, it’s funny, this is a big debate in the in the applied improv world that I work within is do you call it improv? Or do you not call it improv and call it play? Or do you just call it you know, team building, and everyone sort of has their own opinion of how to approach it in my world. For me, I love improv and the value it brings. And it’s very important for me, for people to know that what we’re doing is improv and why we’re doing it and the background of it. But some people don’t agree with that. And they think I’m just going to do it but I’m not going to mention improv. Which is absolutely fine. I think it really comes down to comfort level. But I would say, lead into it and then let them know that it was improv, if you’re doing you know, one or two exercises. If it’s a whole workshop, probably talking to, you know, the HR, the program coordinator, whoever it is to get an idea of the group you’re going to be working with, and are they going to be open to this and maybe I’ll try. maybe I’ll just talk about doing this through play. And or just we’re going to do lighthearted exercises. So finding other words that don’t say improv because, like you were saying, it makes people think of performance, comedy, fear wall goes up.

Beth
It’s kind of part of the learner analysis in a way. As you say, who’s going to be in the room, tell me more about them, that informs language that we use and kind of what we do or do not say in front of the activity. And not It also makes me think about purpose.

Brett
Yes.

Beth
You know, like, I think we would both say that we do not just throw in improv activities just because they’re fun or whatever, right? Like, you’re always coming back to a purpose for why you’ve got that activity in there?

Brett
Yeah. 100%. 100%. And that’s so important for me is, you know, kind of backwards by design, like, what is the goal? Where do I want everyone to get to? What are the themes I’m going to touch on? What exercises would hit all of those? And I usually just post it note it on my wall, bunch of exercises, and then it’s just a process of elimination. Which one of these leads nicely into the next one? Which one fits in here? Okay, I’m going to shift these ones around. So it’s, yeah, there’s a lot of intentionality between the games that I choose and the reason for that is because I really think improv is an art form and I really want to let people know about that and let them appreciate it for what it is. It’s not just a funny game that we’re gonna play and laugh about but there’s a reason behind it and I want you to learn from it. And I want to hear…we do a lot of reflection in my workshops too, like what are you noticing? What did you think about this? How did that feel? What worked? What didn’t work? So every exercise has that involved in it too. But yeah, that intentionality is big. Yeah.

Beth
For all the people listening out there, we can’t forget that piece. Can we that is the North Star for everything that we do. Why are we choosing this thing and does it serve the ultimate purpose? And yeah, that intentionality. Absolutely, yeah.

Brett
Yeah, Which I think as facilitators is why it’s if you can, if there is improv in your community, even just going and doing a beginners improv course, or getting someone you know to play a few improv games with you or just learn more about, if you want to use improv, learn more about why we use it in facilitation. It’s not in my opinion, I don’t love using it just because it’s funny. I want people to learn from it. And, you know, that’s what improvisers are doing with these exercises. We’re learning and training. And so we can use that in facilitation, too.

Beth
Yeah. And you’re saying we don’t have to be funny, like, get that out of our heads. We don’t [Brett: Yeah], you know, it’s not a thing about being funny. And not everybody has that skill, basically.

Brett
No.

Beth Cougler Blom
And never will like it’s…there are other skills that people can draw on you’re saying. I love the focus on listening where someone is a really excellent listener, that’s a great skill to bring to the learning of improv.

Brett
And the funny will happen in improv because you’re being spontaneous and making things up and, and you suddenly say something and you realize, like, I haven’t used that word in 15 years, like, Why did I say that? Or why did I say hippopotamus? Or, you know, and so there’s gonna be moments…there is always laughter right off the bat, because we’re all a little bit nervous, and we have to break through that. But laughter naturally comes. I just don’t think it should be forced. I think we should just let it emerge as it comes. Because that’s so much…I think it’s a richer experience, a richer type of joy and laughter when it just comes naturally.

Beth
It’s true. Yeah, you don’t try too hard. If you try too hard, it probably doesn’t come, it just sounds fake or forced, or, you know, awkward.

Brett
And no one else might get it do because it might just be your funny joke. And you’re like, Oh, this is going to be hilarious. And other people are, maybe can’t relate to that or didn’t see the humour in it, or yeah, so letting it be spontaneous.

Beth
What you said before around that person who comes to improv maybe wanting to be funny, or really wanting to put themselves out there because they think they’re funny, or…it makes me think about ego, or you sometimes they think about ego and facilitation. And we all have to figure out a way to maybe check that if we’re, if we really love standing up in front of a group and we you know, it’s a power position or that kind of thing. Does ego come into it? Or do you use another word for that kind of concept around checking ego in ourselves as we facilitate?

Brett
I don’t know if it’s directly with ego. But with people like that, or situations like that, I like to try and figure out why the person is behaving like that. And I think often it comes down to fear and control, because they want to control the situation, and so they’re just going to be really funny because everyone will laugh. And they don’t have to be vulnerable. Kind of trying to break in sideways with people like that, or with yourselves too, and be like, what’s really happening here? Because you’ll see, I’ve seen people who come in with that kind of energy into a workshop. And then as soon as I start poking at them, and trying to get them a little bit more vulnerable, or playing off them a little bit jokey or something, I can see the tense up and I can see the uncomfortableness come through with that. So helping them to whether it’s yourself or your participants helping you reach that point where you’re like, why am I behaving like this? Or why is this important to me? And can I crack it a little bit? Can I pull out a little bit of that vulnerability?

Beth
In that safe space too, right? [Brett: Exactly.] Like you’re not actually here to crack it wide open, so they leave feeling badly, or you’re just trying to do it in a safe way in a tiny way, maybe even a tiny way, it sounds like.

Brett
Yeah.

Beth Cougler Blom
Just to help that person? Yeah.

Brett
And knowing how, that’s it. That’s I mean, that’s a facilitation tool in itself is knowing how to respond to each person too, isn’t it? Because you can’t just speak the same way to everybody in the group. Because those people you might have to joke with a little bit, and that’s how you’re going to earn their trust. With someone else, you might need to just be very quiet with them and let them speak. And so finding a way within that group too. You tell me, but I feel like as a facilitator, you need to know yourself fairly well, and how you tick and how you work in these situations to be able to help a group of people do the same.

Beth
Yeah, it is very introspective work, isn’t it? That we’re always kind of working on ourselves, hopefully, at the same time as working with the group. You know, if we don’t listen to what the group needs, or what the individuals need, as you say, we’re probably not yet very skilled in this role. But it’s a constant learning, isn’t it? I mean, I assume improv facilitation is the same. If I started it this year, then I will still be learning improv facilitation, five, ten, fifteen, twenty, my whole career, won’t I?

Brett
Absolutely, absolutely. And it’s a constant like practice as well. You’re just constantly practicing it yourself and learning the skills and figuring out which exercises work and it is, it’s a personal growth progress. Yeah.

Beth
Did we miss any of the key principles that you haven’t mentioned yet. You know, we talked about “Yes, And”, we talked about listening. There’s so many things. Is there anything that we is so crucial to improv facilitation that we’ve not yet covered?

Brett
Maybe I’ll just touch on the “Yes, And” again a little bit. Because I think “Yes, And” is about acknowledging what the person has just said, and then building on it. And so it doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with what they say, but you accept and acknowledge that they’ve put an offer out there or a topic of conversation or an opinion or a thought. And you really want to listen to that and build on it. So a big part of improv is just that, that listening, which I think as humans is hard for us. Because we’re listening. And we’re always thinking of what we’re going to, oh, I know how I’m going to respond to this. And so, “Yes, And” is that the core of that. Curiosity over judgment is also a big one in improv, too. And that’s like, we talked about the not making mistakes, but noticing opportunities as well. There’s so many, but I’d say those are probably two of my favourite ones.

Beth
In your recent newsletter, I wrote this down, because I knew we were going to have this conversation. That you talked about gifts as well. And I thought, oh, gifts, that’s such a nice way to think about it. Do you want to say more about the concept of gifts in improv?

Brett
Gifts goes along with opportunities. So as opposed to, let’s say you’re in, in a situation where someone says something you maybe don’t necessarily agree with, or, or something in that situation, noticing it as an opportunity, and almost like a gift of something that you get to now build on as well. I guess it’s looking at the positives and things and seeing them as positives, as opportunities, as opposed to walls or stop signs that that are saying, I don’t agree with you, we’re different. That’s what it is. It’s looking for things that that you have in common. It doesn’t mean you agree on things but we always have commonalities, and how can we approach these, these opportunities from other angles?

Beth
It makes me think about the challenging participant. You know, people always want to talk about how do I deal with a challenging participant? If we could just look at them as opportunities or gifts. You know, whatever that person is doing or saying, maybe there’s something in there for us to learn and to work with.

Brett
Exactly.

Beth
Look for the positives, as you say.

Brett
Yeah, yeah.

Beth
So let’s take it to the opportunities for ourselves. So, you know, let’s say I want to go out next month, and I’m going to put my toe in the water of improv facilitation. Where are some of the common places I should look? Who’s leading in the field? I’m gonna ask three questions in a row. [laughs] But where do you go for your professional development as well? So where should we go, is my question?

Brett
Yeah, totally. So I’d say there’s kind of two options. One is if you feel the urge to actually try some improv, look for a local improv company in your town, or there’s plenty of virtual ones now too that you can just do you know, out of England or something, even though you’re in Canada, you know, vice versa. So I would say if you’re up for it, take a you know, four session beginner improv session, just to experience what those core principles are in improv and how you use them. That’s one side.

The other side is there’s an amazing network, specifically based on Facebook, but they also have a website called the Applied Improv Network, and applied improv is using the skills and principles of improvised theatre and applying them to professional skills, personal skills, and so on. So AIN, Applied Improv Network, is a great place for getting tips and suggestions. It’s a very active Facebook group, and people are in there constantly, you know, I’m doing a workshop on this theme, does anyone have an ideas? And there’s people who have been doing it for decades. And then there’s people who are brand new to it and just pop in and say, I want to try some improv what’s a great game? And people will always offer tons of suggestions. Or you just go in search in there. And there’s tons of posts. There’s actually if people are in the, the Victoria/Vancouver area, we’re having the annual AIN Conference in July in Vancouver, the end of July, which is going to be pretty exciting. And people are coming from all over the world for that. So that’s a, and any facilitator is welcome there. So that’s another great place to come and meet other applied improv facilitators. And I would say, whether you are a facilitator bringing improv into your facilitation, or you are an improviser wanting to get into facilitation, there’s different roads in and different experiences. Yeah.

Beth
That group, is it just for facilitators? Or is it useful for people who actually do other types of work as well? I mean, it’s implied improv everywhere? I mean in any profession?

Brett
I think so.

Beth
I guess, yeah.

Brett
Yeah.

Beth
I’m new to learning about that group. But I was excited to hear about them. They’ve been around for a long time, though, I think have they?

Brett
Yeah. And they really took off during the pandemic. I mean, the whole improv world kind of went soon as the pandemic hit, they were like, Wait, how can we do this online? And then suddenly, there were all these amazing online opportunities to do improv and get together and create open spaces to figure out. Oh, so that’s a great one, too. Once you get into the AIN network, there’s various different weekly open spaces that happen virtually. So there’s one that happens sort of at European North American time. There’s one that happens at Asia, more of an Asian timezone. I think there’s three different ones that happen every week that anyone is welcome to go to. It’s completely free. If you find it on the Facebook group, people are always posting the Zoom link and then it’s a lovely open space for new people to come in and learn. And then of course, there’s a ton of books out there too. On applied improv as well. There’s a ton of different ones. Maybe I can send you some of my top choices or something.

Beth
Let’s do that we can put them in the in the show notes online.

Brett
Perfect.

Beth
Absolutely, yeah.

Brett
Yeah, yeah.

Beth
I like that the network, and probably any improv class that you would go to, you know, you can go to it if you’ve been doing this for a long time, or if you’re brand new, and it’s all fine. Everybody is welcome. And, you know, it seems, it does seem like a very safe and supportive community.

Brett
It is in general. Now this is my experience is that in general, the people who are in those improv groups are there just to have fun, meet new people laugh, they’re very welcoming people, the improv world in general. So it’s a great community to just step your toe into it. [laughs]

Beth
You’re convincing me, Brett! I’m gonna step my toe into it. I really want to go to that Vancouver conference. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it. But I’m going to try.

Brett
Yeah, if you can, for sure. Yeah.

Beth
Is there anything, Brett, that you want to leave us with? Just a final encapsulating statement around why we might do this? What are we going to get out of it if we try and do some improv facilitation?

Brett
Two things that come to mind for me is you’re going to enjoy yourself and have a laugh and feel some joy. And I think also, you’re going to learn something about yourself, whether it’s from an opportunity that happens that you realize you could have done differently, or it’s something that you try that you didn’t even realize that you could succeed at. You’re going to learn something about yourself, and you’re going to just have a good laugh over something as well. And I think that’s part of improv is being able to laugh at yourself and laugh at those moments. And so I think that’s it. Be curious and just see what opportunities pop up.

Beth
It makes me think that we might think, Oh, we’re doing this for our groups. And of course, that’s true. But then you’re really highlighting we’re doing this for ourselves as well. This is a growth opportunity, and a fun way. That’s really exciting.

Brett
Absolutely. I agree. Well put.

Beth
Well, you put it first. [They both laugh.] Thank you so much, Brett for joining me today. It’s been…really this is a topic I really don’t know anything about it. And not saying that all the topics on the podcast I do know something about but I’ve really appreciated being able to ask you these questions and just, learn from you today about improv. Thank you so much.

Brett
Great. You’re welcome. Thanks for having me, Beth. This was delightful.

[Episode outro]
Beth
Thanks so much for listening to this episode. I want to highlight a couple of things that were meaningful to me about my conversation with Brett. I mean, so much was meaningful but there are those times when a guest says something while we’re having the conversation that make me wake up and pay attention to what they’re saying, because it’s something new that I haven’t heard before or it’s something that I think, oh, everyone should know this. That is so important. And one of the things that Brett said in this conversation was that people always think that they have to be funny when doing improv in a facilitation situation, in a course or workshop situation. We always come in thinking, Oh, well, I’m not very funny and so I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do this as a participant and have fear and be scared about that. And I said that too, you heard me admit that I have been scared to do improv because of that. And she’s saying, No, it’s not about being funny and that’s actually a forced thing that comes along. And it actually sometimes makes it not work if we are trying to be too funny because we think we have to be funny, [laughs] and so on. So I think that’s such a great realization for all of us to know about improv in facilitation that we can just go in and be ourselves and improvise.

And the other thing she said around that was that hey, we actually improvise in our lives every day. And when she said that, I thought, yeah, we just go through our lives, don’t we? And we improvise what we’re going to do and we’re in conversations and people say things and we say things back and that’s improvisation. And I never thought of it that way. That we actually, if you think about it, are all excellent improvisers because that’s the way we live our lives. And some of that’s funny, just because it happens and some of that’s not and that’s fine, too. So a couple little tips there from Brett which I thought were really really meaningful about us participating in improv facilitation games and activities.

On the facilitation side, we did talk, as you heard, about a lot of intentionality around choosing improv activities to use with our groups. And a lot of the same things we’ve talked about in earlier episodes and especially in the last episode, when I talked about choosing activities. Brett said it too. You know, always go back to the goal that you’re trying to serve with your workshop or your course. You know, what are you trying to do, and then how are you going to get the participants there. And sometimes it’s with improv activities and you can think about how you do that with a group and when and stepping them along, and all those sorts of things. So I really love that she reinforced the intentionality around starting with your purpose and goals, and then choosing improv techniques, or other activity types to serve that purpose or serve that goal.

Thinking ahead to the next episode, we are actually coming up to a bit of a break here for the podcast. I’ve decided not to drop any episodes in July, just to have a little bit of a breather for myself and my guests as the summer hits. And so we’re going to return in August, the second Wednesday of August will be our next dropping episode. And ooh, this is going to be one to wait for actually, because I’m going to interview a couple of people about pronouncing names and how important it is to get our participants or our students names right when we’re working with them. But there’s also all sorts of questions within about how we do that respectfully and so on. So join me and Sarra Ismail and Mary Houle will who will be sharing with us not only their wisdom around this topic, but their personal experience as well, which I really, really appreciated. You’re going to hear me talk about my name, as well. [laughs] So we’ll see you then in August.

[Show outro]
Beth
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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