Patricia Ryan Madson is the author of Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up and a Professor Emerita from Stanford University. She headed up the undergraduate acting and improvisation programs, and founded the Creativity Initiative at Stanford. As a consultant, Patricia has introduced thousands of business leaders, wellness practitioners, and others to the life-changing power of improvisation.
Brent: You know I believe that, no matter what our profession, we are all in the business of building relationships. That’s why remembering names is important. Tell us how improv helps people strengthen relationships.
Patricia: Relationships are based on shared experiences. We make up stories, we enact dramas, we co-create. These brief, fictional activities make up a shared history. This history gives us a shared past. Improv teaches respect and listening. And improv teaches and models how to make mistakes, fail cheerfully, and develop tolerance for other’s ways of working. All of this is foundational in healthy relationships.
Brent: Beautiful insights. A former Stanford colleague of yours, the late Clifford Nass, maintained that the key elements of team building are “identification” and “interdependence.” Sounds like that’s what improv offers face-to-face.
Patricia: In this age of perpetual digital connection, there is an ongoing need for human connection. No matter how many likes we get on social media, nothing substitutes for being in the same room with a person and having a conversation or playing together.
Brent: No question that technology offers a powerful supplement to our relationships, but it’s not a replacement for it.
Patricia: I sense a deep longing for ways that we can be together without special equipment, training, or physical ability. Improv provides a safe crucible for being human.
Brent: When I lead memory workshops, I bring in improv activities to get colleagues to interact more playfully.
Patricia: Successful teams know how to do more than work together. They are also good at play. Playing together flexes the muscles of cooperation and mutual respect. Teams come to “know each other” as players. In play the rules of leading and following vary. Improv play teaches shared control, heightened listening, mutual respect, and the capacity to turn mistakes into winning moves.
Brent: Setting each other up to succeed is an asset anywhere.
Patricia: There’s a saying tossed around in improv to “make your partner look good.” We don’t do or say things that undermine or contradict others. We look for ways to support and encourage our partner and show them off in a good light. We accept offers and build upon them. We are choosing to cooperate rather than compete.
Brent: The kind of mental agility that improv promotes is a health benefit. Now that humans are living longer, we need to stay healthier longer. Interestingly, improv activities can actually strengthen our relationships with Alzheimer’s patients. Can you explain this?
Patricia: Yes, that’s true. There’s little to be gained from contradicting someone with Alzheimer’s. Incorporating the behaviors we’ve been talking about can better the quality of the interactions, even with someone who is no longer the same. I will share with you an essay on this subject that I’d be hard-pressed to improve upon. Read it HERE.
Brent: Thank you, Patricia. Improv does make the world a better place.
Patricia: Yes, and anyone can do it!