conversational skills

Why Haven’t You Done This Yet? (Part 1)

Fear-of-Looking-Stupid1By nature I’m a shy person but I hate being that way, so I do things that push me out of my comfort zone. Whether it’s hosting conferences, critiquing strangers on the street, or reading my work in public, I truly believe that when I feel nervous I’m actually growing. Improv was on the top of my list of things that scared me so I knew it was only a matter of time before I took a class.

I signed up for an improv level 0 class. Not level 1 but level big-fat-0, a four-week introduction to the art of improv with no daunting performance at the end of the course like most improv classes. While there are lots of improv schools to choose from in NYC, I picked The Peoples Improv Theater, lovingly referred to as The Pit, because it has a reputation for being really fun. Our instructor, Taren Sterry, immediately turned the classroom into a goofy, safe environment, while also offering the perfect level of critic to help us improve.

I have never had so much fun with adults. During our three-hour classes, there were moments I couldn’t catch my breath I was laughing so hard. When you’re having so much fun, it’s hard to believe that you’re learning, but I certainly was. Over the next few posts I’m going to share with you what improv taught me.

  1. Better conversational skills.

A conversation is about listening and sharing. Until I took improv, I had no idea what a terrible listener I was.  People tend to listen to the first half of someone’s story and then they’re already thinking of what they are going to say next. This leads to a conversation that is pretty flat. But if you really listen to a story about someone’s Aunt Trudy, you might pick up on a detail that could trigger a much deeper conversation. “Your aunt Trudy dated a Stan from Riverdale? My uncle Stan is from Riverdale. Maybe they dated?!? Maybe we’re related!” Even though I was having a blast, I left every class with a headache because I’ve never concentrated so hard in my life. The better you listen to what people are saying the more you can work off the golden nuggets they throw out.

I was amazed at how easy it was to converse with the other students during the breaks and after class. It was because we were all using the golden rule of YES AND. This rule is all about giving the other person something to work with. You affirm what they say and you add something to it. I have a terrible habit of giving short answers when making small talk. A part of me believes that if someone is truly interested, they’ll ask me follow up questions. I don’t want to be that person who overwhelms a stranger with my entire life story (I do that with my blog, thank you very much). But here’s a good example of a conversation that was improved with improv: Someone asked me how I was doing and my instinct was to say, “tired,” but instead I said, “I’m tired because I stayed up late doing karaoke.” See! because I added that tiny bit of info, the conversation began! We got into a big long discussion about the best karaoke songs to sing and that never would have happened if I just gave a one-word answer.

So there you have it, the first way you’ll improve from improv. Everyone could benefit from taking an improv class. I highly recommend The Pit, and more specifically my amazing teacher, Tarren Sterry. If you end up taking a class, let them know I sent you 🙂 Stay tuned for the next skill I learned from improv.

The importance of being vulnerable

You can decide how a conversation will go. Seems obvious, but as a recovering introvert, I have slowly realized this fact. I never thought I had the power to control a conversation, I usually just add on to a subject someone else brings up. But since I am at a school, meeting lots of new people, I have had the opportunity to answer the same questions over and over again. Surprise suprise the more information I volunteer, the more interesting the conversation gets.

Everyone asks me what I do for a living (actually first they ask me if I´m in college which is really flattering, but then it just reminds me of how old I´m getting). At first I was answering,

¨I just quite my job.¨

And their  natural response would be, ¨What do you plan to do next?¨ And I would say, ¨I´m not sure, just looking around.¨

I figured if they were really interested they would ask further. Or I will tell them more when we get closer. Afterall, they´re strangers – they don´t really care.

Writing this blog has helped me realize that strangers really do care. I can´t believe how many strangers have subscribed, or sent me comments (I really appreciate it, by the way (and I really appreciate my friends subscribing too!)). And the reason why people are interested is because I´m sharing something interesting. If I had a blog that said ¨ I quit my job and I´m not sure what I´ll do next,¨ (insert shrug here) there wouldn´t be much to relate to.

This where I did my reflection before writing this post. The Casa del Sal

So recently when people ask me what I do for a living I answer, ¨I quit my job because it wasn´t making me happy and I wasn´t living up to my potential. Now I´m taking some time to reflect on what I want to do with my time on earth. How can I contribute to society, but also make my happiness a priority.¨ Well you can´t believe the difference that makes. People´s eyes just widen. They´ve been given so many hooks. The conversation has been layed out.

This felt like a risky thing to say at first. What if they shrug their shoulders and say, ¨well that´s nice,¨and move on to someone else? Or they can roll their eyes and say,  You must think you´re real special. Just get a job and pay your bills.¨ But no one says this. Usually they tell me how they completly understand what I´m going through. Then all of a sudden complete strangers are sharing with me about how they are unhappy with their job, but they are afraid of quiting, or how they were unhappy but were afraid to start over again, but they´re so glad they did.

I find that the more I share the more other´s feel comfortable sharing their fears, regrets and life lessons.  I always  hated small talk, but that´s because I was the one making it boring. You don´t have to play small when small talking.

The other night I sat down with an older woman from England. We struggled with small talk for a bit, finding that we really had nothing in common, but then she asked me what I do for a living. I gave her my new and improved response. Suddenly her eyes lit up. ¨I went through exactly the same thing after my divorce.¨ She then told me how she worked in HR for years, but after she got divorced she quit her job and had lots of time to do some self-reflection. That´s when she realized how much she liked art, and she began taking continuing education classes in art, until she got her masters, and now she has a studio, and is a quite successful sculptress. She told me she wished she had taken that break to look at her life when she was younger because she felt that she wasted years just going through the motions.

Me at the aqueduct of Segovia. Hope this wall never comes down!

In a matter of minutes we realized how similar we are, and I really appreciated hearing an older perspective on what I´m going through and hearing her afirmation of the HeSo project. None of this would have happened if I just shrugged my shoulders and said ¨I´m not sure what I´m doing next.¨ I´m giving the same information, but now I´m revealing my emotions about it, and that makes all the difference.

If you´re making small talk today I encourage you to share more than you normally would. You´ll be surprised how quickly the walls  come down!