In August 2019 I gave an AINxTalk at the Applied Improvisation Network 2019 Stony Brook Conference. It addressed my peers within the network and the message really applies to anyone working in corporate training, Learning and Development - be it Improvisation, Mindfulness, or any other practice which gets "applied" to life and work contexts.
This was a time on my journey when I was finding words what I didn't want to do with my practice but did not yet know how I could give it a new form and language. I knew I no longer wanted to do surface-level work, distilling decades of wisdom into platitudes while spiritually bypassing the essence of improvisation.
Holding this talk felt necessary and risky, as the audience was made up of my peers, colleagues and mentors. To my relief, my talk was embraced by the AIN community and sparked vigorous conversation about personal integrity and professional responsibility. While I would now phrase some parts a little differently, as I have progressed on my own path of healing, I think the critique still holds.
This person is stressed.
It's me on a challenge course.
With a fear of heights.
This was part of a therapy programme for anxiety, depression, and Burnout. The advice I got up there sounded a lot like the advice I've heard in Improvisation workshops. That is
Follow The Fear
And Just Let Go.
The thing is, for me up there, It didn't help. It gave me jelly legs. So I asked myself: Why couldn’t I make use of this advice? Why couldn’t I just improvise my way through the challenge course and out of my Burnout?
What was I missing?
I’ve come to think that what was missing for me on that platform is very similar to what our participants need when they say: “That was fun, but I don’t get it.” When they can't apply our improvisation wisdom.
Why? What are they missing?
1. Be Present
According to a 2018 Gallup study, 67% of full-time employees questioned reported feeling burned out at work sometimes or always. 'Be present' sounds like promising advice. But the top five factors correlated with workplace stress are rooted in material and organisational shortcomings:
and time pressure.
Telling a stressed employee to be more present is like telling someone on Ultimate Beastmaster to notice they're breathing. It’s one of the world’s toughest obstacle courses – simply showing up and breathing doesn’t solve the problem.
Be present. What is missing?
But aside from management coaching, facilitators like us are often hired to address the employees’ symptoms with coping strategies. So when we ask participants to be present with energizers, engagement and productivity hacks we need to recognise that the present workplace might be making it increasingly difficult for them to be there.
Saying 'be present' can turn external circumstances into mindset issues. It runs the risk of deflecting responsibility of change away from managers, corporations, and systems which are working us into collapse.
And being present with that truth can be overwhelming and scary.
2. Follow the Fear
So then we might say, feel your feelings, get out of your comfort zone, follow the fear! Because that’s where the magic is supposed to happen. Sounds nice and simple.
But life rarely looks that obscurely empty. It’s likely filled with Fear Factors. So the present is not always a nice place to be. Many people find it challenging to feel safe around others in their office and in society.
It’s tempting to say something like: “it’s an anxiety, a phobia of heights, it’s in your head,” and “you can control how you react to this.” But even if someone’s physical safety in the room is assured, a person’s sensation of that moment might be exhausting.
Because stress is not just in our heads, it’s physical.
The earlier and more frequently we’re exposed to pressures and threats, the more stress inducing hormones are released in our body. When overloaded with stress, feeling unsafe and alert becomes the new normal. Leaning into fear then can feel like walking a tightrope above the abyss of our anxieties. No amount of aphorisms will change this.
Follow the fear. What is missing?
Experiences. To have a psychological shift, we need a physiological experience. There are two parts to this.
The first is recognition of discomfort.
The second is feeling 'comfortable with discomfort'. Being with it. But this is only possible when we know what being comfortable feels like in the first place.
So if at work, normal is stressful, we need to create spaces where employees can reconnect with their feelings of calm and safety so that their bodies can relax. Rather than yanking our participants out of their comfort zone and pushing them off the ledge, we can show them safety features. Let them connect to their inner and outer resources to voluntarily take a step.
Make them feel safe to let go.
3. Just Let Go
We tell our participants to let go of the need to be in control, their ego, their perfectionism. To loosen their attachments and dismantle their walls. Let’s, for a moment, consider what those walls are protecting them from.
At work, most people don’t have agency, they don’t get fair recognition, and they are at risk of losing their jobs when they don’t get a 5 out of 5 star rating. So here we are asking them to let go of their coping mechanisms that arise from a societal structure of uncertainty and punishment. Like Wipeout. An assault course designed to punch you off track.
Let go. What is missing?
Support. We know from Charles Duhigg that when asking someone to let go of say a habit, we need to offer them something new they can hold on to. On the challenge course, I was given a partner to hold my hand and guide me.
Let go is literally an invitation to release. It implies a shift from safety to uncertainty. It means taking a risk and putting trust into a state of limbo. And trust in us as facilitators. That’s not something that’s done casually. Especially not when stressed.
Discomfort can lead to old wounds resurfacing and new challenges arising. If we want our participants to apply our techniques to extend their comfort zones, we need to get professionally trained in and beyond Improvisation. Get trained to recognize and witness their discomfort.
Get trained to guide and support them safely through new behaviours without resorting to fridge magnet mantras.
Recognition, Experiences, Support.
The stories we tell ourselves about Applied Improvisation have a bias towards transformation and success. This is understandable, but not everyone experiences recognition and support in our sessions or when they return to their desks.
We do need elements of theory. But they are only effective when they are recognisably in line with reality, guided by visceral experiences, and supported through skilled coaching. Applied Improvisation training can offer all of these elements. And we sell ourselves short if we turn them into coffee mug wisdom.
For lunch, I’d like to invite you to continue the conversation with this: How do we/I provide recognition, experiences, and support through our/my work?
And are there perhaps more useful things we can say than ‘be present’, ‘follow the fear’, and ‘just let go’.