Heard Any Offers Lately?

International class

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to train the International Class of the East Side Institute http://www.eastsideinstitute.org/Training.html.  The students are learning the Institute’s approach to human development and community building; the group included people from Bangladesh, Serbia, and Brazil, as well as the Director of the Institute, Lois Holzman (pictured above). 

We worked on applying the basic tool of improvisation – yes and – to two-person scenes, which helps strengthen listening skills and, most importantly, the ability to build relationships and intimacy.  Because these students are engaged in learning a performance-based methodology they were very eager to both experience and understand how to apply improvisation in their work.

After some warm ups I had the students perform a series of two-person scenes beginning with the words, “It’s Tuesday and…”  As is often the case with improvisation, the scenes began with rather mundane comments and then, with my coaching, the students created relationships and, in some instances, a great deal of intimacy. How did that happen?  It happened by actively listening in order to hear the “offer” that was given and responding to that offer.  As both people feel heard by the other intimacy is slowly created, offer by offer.

My job as the coach was to stop the players to have a look at a missed offer or that someone negated an offer.  I gave the players my offer that they focus on deepening the relationship by accepting and building with each and every offer.

What matters In theatre and in life are relationships. Sadly in our culture we often end up thinking about the next thing to say, rather than actively listening to the other person and responding to them, not to the voice in our heads.

You might be reading this and wondering how this is applicable to a business setting.  As an executive coach who uses improvisation as a tool for growth and development, it is often the case that business people need and want to strengthen their ability to be active listeners.

Managers, in particular, want to develop these skills in order to further develop their team and thereby the team’s capabilities.  We work on creating conversation by slowly building with whatever “offers” are given.  If  team members are making “offers” and managers are negating them (by saying “no but” rather than “yes and”), relationships will suffer and demoralization can easily set in.

One of the interesting questions we explored in the International Class training is whether you can say “no” when you are playing a “yes and” game/scene.  As is often the case with rules, once you’ve mastered “yes and” it is possible to say “no” in a “yes and” manner.  In other words, if your team member makes a suggestion that you cannot accept, for whatever reason, there is a way to accept that offer without negating the suggestion and thereby the person who suggested it.

By working hard to have a positive “yes and” response – by virtue of putting your focus on the other – everyone feels appreciated and heard.

Yay, We Made A Mistake!!

Embracing Discomfort

Yesterday I was part of the East Side Institute’s http://www.eastsideinstitute.org Winter Institute: Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones (Together) led by Cathy Salit, CEO of Performance of A Lifetime http://www.performanceofalifetime.com and Christine LaCerva, Director of The Social Therapy Group centers http://www.socialtherapygroup.com.

Cathy led us in a fun game where we had to use a different name for ourselves (our middle name or nickname or a made-up super hero name).  We formed circles of 10-11 people around the room and had to quickly tried to learn everyone’s name.  Then each person  pointed to another in the circle and said their name.  If someone hesitated or said the wrong name they threw their arms up and said, “We made a mistake!” – then the others in the group responded with throwing their arms up and adding, “We did!” and then we all applauded and cheered and then the person who made the mistake moved to another circle.

The discussion/debrief about this game was quite rich.  This was a new experience, to  find ourselves in a situation in which we said “We made a mistake!” when someone in our group made a mistake.  The attendees shared many responses to making mistakes, to others making mistakes and what that looks like in many contexts, business being one of the more difficult environments for making mistakes and embracing the social activity of mistake-making (vs the blame game).

LaCerva was encouraging workshop attendees to get out of our comfort zones by embracing discomfort, embarrassment and the embarrassment of others, and our weirdness in the face of being outside of our comfort zone.  The activity of embracing the mistakes we make and others make as our mistakes is weird, uncomfortable and embarrassing.  LaCerva reminded us that in our culture we are “addicted to thinking of ourselves”.  She suggested that we, “go beyond the tyranny of the normal.” It turns out, as  people shared, that it is freeing and less constraining emotionally to allow ourselves to have our relationality, we are social beings; we cannot do much of anything without others and that includes making mistakes.  

My colleague Lois Holzman is writing a book called The Overweight Brain.  She posts the book, chapter-by-chapter, for all to read on her website: http://loisholzman.org/books/latest-installment/ 

In Chapter 2, which Lois just posted, she introduces people to Lev Vygotsky, a “revolutionary scientist” and early Soviet psychologist.  Towards the end of the chapter Lois quotes Vygotsky: 

Somehow our society has formed a one-sided view of the human personality, and for some reason everyone understood giftedness and talent only as it applied to the intellect. But it is possible not only to be talented in one’s thoughts but also to be talented in one’s feelings as well. The emotional part of the personality has no less value than the other sides, and it also should be the object and concern of education, as well as intellect and will. Love can reach the same level of talent and even genius, as the discovery of differential calculus.

In thinking about “we made a mistake” and our difficulties with embracing our failures (large and small), this notion that we could also be talented in our feelings as well as our intellect, makes it easier to radically accept our mistakes as being human.  Sadly our culture devalues our emotions and doesn’t allow us the room to embrace our feelings of embarrassment, etc. when we make mistakes. Instead the norm is to have to find someone to blame.

I learned and experienced many things in this workshop.  Perhaps the most important was that certain mistakes, often the larger, more challenging/upsetting mistakes that we make happen because we’ve grown.  We put ourselves in more challenging positions and therefore we make bigger mistakes.  We spend so much time berating ourselves for our mistakes, or blaming ourselves or others, that we totally miss that because we’ve grown and developed so the stakes are higher.  That turns mistake-making on its head!

Or, as Lois puts it:

We’re always making something new out of what exists. We transform the very circumstances that we’re in. We engage in becoming.

Granted, it might be hard to throw your hands in the air and cheer, “We made a mistake!” at the office but the next time you or a colleague makes a mistake, try a new performance and see what it’s like to not have to blame anyone and thereby engage in becoming.  It might just make your overweight brain a little lighter!

Transform in a moment . . . through performance!

I’ve been thinking a lot about coaching this week — maybe because I’ve been coaching a lot this week!

In the early part of the week I had the chance to participate in a corporate training for a leading management consulting firm thanks to my colleagues at Performance of A Lifetime (http://performanceofalifetime.com) who hired me as a coach and role player for this gig. Our fantastic, talented team of improviser/role players spent the day being interviewed by teams of young consultants (fresh out of college); at the end of the day each of us coached teams of these young consultants based on feedback from those interviews.

Later in the week, I had coaching sessions with a few of my young colleagues at a client company where I’m the “communication specialist”.

It’s wonderful to give young people the chance to use performance as a tool for growth, no matter what the context!  It’s very gratifying to share how performance helps us grow and develop.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching a video of a talk that one of my mentors, Dr. Fred Newman, gave at Town Hall back in 1997 on “performance therapy”.  Fred is the chief architect of the methodology that I was trained in (and that Performance of A Lifetime utilizes in their work).  As always Fred had many thought provoking things to share; given what’s been on my mind this week this sentence jumped out at me:

“We have the capacity to transform ourselves in a moment through performance.”

What got me thinking was this notion of transforming ourselves in a moment.  Our psychologically-overdetermined culture sends the message that transformation is about introspection, explanation and knowing — and that it can take years of therapy! Along comes Fred Newman saying that we can tranform ourselves in a moment!

When Newman talks about performance therapy he is acknowledging the essential human activity of being who we are and who we are not at the same time.  Each of us has the capacity and can make the choice, moment-to-moment, to perform — to be other than who we are — and thereby to transform ourselves.

How liberating!

For more information about Newman, performance therapy/social therapy, and learning more about the performance approach see the website of the East Side Institute at http://www.eastsideinstitute.org

Laughing Matters

Yesterday I co-led a workshop at the East Side Institute entitled Laughing Matters where we explored the role of humor in our lives.  The participants created humor together — it was a joyous and delightful exploration of this vital human activity.

I recently came across an interesting article in Forbes – Are Funny People More Successful in Business? http://onforb.es/K7CVQ4 which got me thinking about what we learned in our workshop, as well as my own experiences as a funny person in the workplace.

The article quotes Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D., the former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor:

Sultanoff says that people who are funny likely will be perceived as more enjoyable and as better employees because they are in fact more successful. “If someone is using humor then they are connecting with people and building relationships, which creates opportunities that other people may not have.”

One of the discoveries that we made at our workshop is the social nature of humor.  I was pleased to see this quote because I wholeheartedly agree that humor is one of the very best ways to connect with people.  I would take it a step further to say that we are not simply “using humor”, we are creating with another person or people.  Not only are we a relational species, we have a wonderful and often underutilized capacity to endlessly create!  (Think back to how we played as children.)

There is a difference — another thing we discovered at our workshop — between creating humor together and “being funny” or “making people laugh”.  This is an important distinction because, as is noted in the Forbes article, one can be mean-spirited and “get a laugh”, whereas the social activity of creating humor together is profoundly positive.

The workplace can be a most a stressful environment so finding (and even seeking out) opportunities to create humor together is an important way that we can let go of that stress and play. Being a proponent of play, the results of this study make good sense to me:

Research shows that successful humor boosts both personal productivity and group effectiveness. According to Michelle Gielan, an expert in positive psychology and cofounder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, when something makes us smile or laugh, the feel-good chemical dopamine is dropped into our systems, which turns on all the learning centers in the brain and heightens creativity, productivity and engagement.

Being an improvisational comedienne is one of the best tools I have to navigate a stressful day at work.  I find that I use humor all day long!  One reason I’ve been able to build a strong relationship with my manager at one of my ongoing client engagements is his appreciation that being playful in the midst of a high pressured environment makes it possible to work hard and be productive.

Play is under-appreciated and under-utilized in the workplace, which is a shame, given how much more creative, productive and innovative we are when we are playing.  I was heartened to read the final paragraph of the article:

Despite the avenues for failure, some companies are betting on humor’s benefits. “Humor and play are in the corporate mission statements of Southwest Airlines, Google and Ben & Jerry’s,” Sultanoff says. “At most places, you won’t read it in the manual, but I think companies should be thinking about it.” He notes that only 15% of people are fired for incompetence—the other 85% are fired for not getting along with others. Used effectively, humor helps people get along, decreases turnover and increases productivity.

Yes… laughing matters!

Showing who we are – A storytelling approach

I’ve been taking a class — Talking to People in Public: A Storytelling Approach with Cathy Rose Salit, President & CEO of Performance of a Lifetime and Chris Helm, a talented teacher of all things philosophical — in order to learn more about coaching whilst I improve my own presentation abilities.

At this week’s class we began making presentations that Cathy then redirected to help us develop our capacity to not only talk about ourselves but to show our audience who we are.  This was a very instructive and creative exercise.

I chose to make the presentation “Why Improvisation?” that I’ve recently made in a corporate setting.  I gave my presentation to the class.  Then Cathy shared with the class that she and I know each other quite well.  In fact we currently perform together in an improv troupe at the Castillo Theatre – The Proverbial Loons; we have been performing together for 20 years.  She made the following suggestion:  She asked me to ask the audience for a list of characters and to write them on a whiteboard; then I was to give my presentation again, only this time as the characters on the list, the class could tell me when to switch to a new character.

I did my presentation again, this time I started out as a Russian man, then I was a dog, then I was a college student barista at Starbucks and I ended the presentation as a nagging mother — it was very funny and entertaining.

Cathy was teaching me and us how to show who we are; rather than lecturing about improvisation, I improvised! We then discussed how this would impact the audience for this presentation within a corporate setting.  It was a very rich and valuable dialogue.  In my letting people see who I am as a 20 year veteran improviser (and giving them this fun experience) it might create more of an environment for them to trust me in taking them through a workshop to teach these skills, which they can then apply to their own work (cold calling and developing better communication capabilities).

This approach to storytelling and sharing who we are by demonstrating who we are rather than talking about who we are is much more intimate and vastly more creative.

I’d love to hear how you can use this approach in your own presentation work.

For more information about classes at the East Side Institute and Cathy Rose Salit please see these links:



‘Tis the season to be playful!

Random musings about the therapeutic and developmental nature of play —

This TED Talk, “The shared experience of absurdity” by Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, is a wonderful example of the value of pointless play. It beautifully illustrates the joy we experience connecting with others in the activity of play.


I’m fortunate to be part of a community that is always discovering how play can help people develop in many contexts — here’s a few examples:

We recently ended a very successful three week class at the East Side Institute on humor and it’s role in development. My co-teacher Mary Fridley and I were fortunate to work with a very giving and creative group of students. In our last session we split the class into two groups and they created and performed two wonderfully humorous skits. Our students created humor out of the things they listed as “not funny” — terminal illness, abuse, our irritations at people, and various difficult circumstances that we find ourselves in. Together we made discoveries about how we can use our wonderful human ability to create with others and in that activity we find humor and joy, even when we are sure there is none to be found.

On December 9th I’ll be joining my colleague Rafael Mendez at the Social Therapy Group’s workshop: Creating the Holidays You Want to Have*.  It’s part of Therapy Play: a series of therapeutic workshops of philosophical conversation and group performance work designed for emotional growth and development.  Rafael asked me to help him create an environment for participants to play with some of the things that come up for all of us during the holidays:

Even as we look forward to celebrating with friends and family, the pressure to feel how we’re “supposed” to feel, to get together with who we’re “supposed” to get together and to give gifts we often can’t afford – can make it difficult to be “merry, happy and gay.”

In preparing to coach another MBA student who told me that he has difficulty, “letting people see my personality” I’ve been thinking about how adults have to reawaken and strengthen our play muscle. This muscle, which was so strong when we were children, sadly atrophies during adulthood.  The good news is that we can all workout in the gymnasium of pointless play in our families, workplaces and frankly anywhere we find ourselves.

Improv Everywere … indeed!

* For readers in the NY Metro area here’s a link to info on the December 9th workshophttp://www.socialtherapygroup.com/events.html

Word play

My new company Career Play Inc. was created to help people use performance and play as tools to develop our lives in and outside of work.  In my quest to learn the most sophisticated and cutting edge approaches in human development, I spent the past four days attending the East Side Institute’s Social Therapy as Clinical Practice weekend intensive training.

The training helped me learn more about about the importance and value of philosophizing, exploring language as an activity, and creating the “we” vs. “me” in any situation we find ourselves in.

I look forward to sharing my learnings and development from the training in my work with clients and companies, and on this blog.  I thought it might be fun and interesting to simply post some of my notes without explanation – one way to think about this blog post is that it is WORD PLAY.

Please post any and all comments.

Everything we do is social and we are socialized to experience what we do in a privitized way.

Create a social environment that supports collective work.

See non-paradigmatically.

Language prevents us from seeing that language prevents us from seeing.

Play with words that we are using.

Environment is an activity.  The activity of buillding the environment is curative.

What it means to live life is to be creative.  

People are social performers.

Someone different from you can see who you are.

We are not consumers of culture, we are makers of culture.

Learning is a social activity.

No separation between process and product.

We live in a world that is overly private, overly consumerist and overly knowledge-based.

How can we fight against the American test-driven, diagnostic approach to schooling?

Challenge cultural norms.  

Challenge the assumption of the individual.

People grow and see new things by participating in groups they create.

For more information on social therapy and the work of the East Side Insititute I refer interested readers to these links:



Playing Around with How We Write

I wrote this blog post earlier this evening during a workshop sponsored by the East Side institute — Playing Around with How We Write:

Tonight I am attending an Advanced Writing Playground workshop led by my friend and colleague Carrie Lobman.  Carrie is an educator with an expertise in play and human development.  I am in a room with about 15 adults who are here to learn to “play with writing”.  In Carrie’s introduction she was talking about the activity of writing often being something that we do alone.  Among the many things that school does not do well is teaching us how to get help.  The other thing school doesn’t teach us to do well is editing, so many people think that they have to write a “finished product”.  In this workshop we are going to work with a partner and see what it is like if they help us with our writing.  We are taking 10 minutes to work on whatever it is that we’ve chosen to write in this workshop – some people are writing something new in the moment, as I am doing, while others are editing something they brought along to work on.  At any time during this 10 minutes of writing we can go up to anyone in the workshop and ask them for help and we’ve all agreed that we will be open to giving that person help.

Before we sat down to write we played a few improvisational games together to create a playful environment and to get to know each other a bit.  One game called “Boom Baby” (a favorite of mine) was chosen by Carrie because in it we create poetry together.  The participants are in a circle and we start out by “passing a clap” – you face the person to your right and look at each other and clap together simultaneously and that clap passes around the circle from person to person.  Now that everyone has learned that basic of the game we add words.  We are created a song in which the first two words are “boom baby” and here’s how we did it: The first pairing say “boom” simultaneously with their clap, the next two say “baby” simultaneously, and then the next person turns to the partner to their right and says a word that this pair will say together simultaneously and that continues around the circle.  We created our song as we clapped and spoke our words simultaneously going around the circle. 

Now Carrie had us pass what we wrote to the person sitting on our right and each of us had 10 minutes to write a poem about what the person to our left had written.  Here’s the poem that Rebecca wrote about what I had written thus far:

School sucks at a lot of things

School sucks at teaching us to get help

School sucks at editing with people

School likes “Finished Products”

And Solitary Activity

Carrie Lobman is my friend (who’s awesome)

She is teaching us how to do things that sucky school can’t.

So we play and play and play

In this advanced writing workshop

Flirting as adults do with neuroses

Making a pass at collective activity.

Playing boom baby boom boom

We need help

We don’t ask for help

We ask

We reject

We build on

We continue

We pass the clap


Sometimes hesitantly

Sometimes quickly.

We read some of the poems out loud, they are beautiful and funny and touching.  Now we have 10 minutes to take the poems that were written about what we wrote and continue in whatever way we want to.  So I’ve retyped Rebecca’s poem and got emotional in doing so.  An unexpected intimacy!  The room is quiet in a way that is so appealing.  I’m finding that writing in a room of writers is a delicious experience.  I’m wondering how to keep that going in those moments that writing is frustrating, when I feel like I have not a thought in my mind or a word to write down.

I’m also wondering if this is helpful to someone reading this blog post.  What would it be like to write a poetic version of a blog post?  Playing with the writing of this blog is awfully fun but will I really hit the “post” button and post this?  Will I edit all of this out?  What will happen next?

I’m trying not to make this too instrumental and connect the dots to business applications, as this blog is “musings on performance and business”.  Perhaps this evening I am musing on musing.  Musing on play.  Playing with musing.  Playing with writing.

Once Carrie told me that when I get stuck writing I should try writing a poem.

The next thing Carrie asked us to do is for the person to the right of us to continue writing what it was that we had written so far in the style in which we were writing.  So Rebecca continued writing this blog post from where I stopped … “Once Carrie told me that when I get stuck writing I should try writing a poem.”

So one day when I did get stuck, I tried Carrie’s idea and I wrote a poem.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to write.  I didn’t even know if I wanted to be writing at all. I kind of wanted to go for an ice cream.  But I didn’t do it.  I did the harder thing: I wrote a poem.  The poem was a little funny and a little sad.  After I finished it I wasn’t sure if I knew what I had wrote.  So I went for a walk and thought about the poem and the blog.  The day was so beautiful and warm.  The flowers were blooming in tiny white and pink clusters.  People were out and about eating their lunch on park benches, sauntering with their portable devices, and laughing like the cold winds of winter were not here, in this very spot, only a few weeks ago.

I thought about going back.  I thought again about the blog.  I felt refreshed; ready to write again.  Perhaps, I will tell the world about my walk and about how it has been a part of my writing process.  After all, people like to read about other people’s creative processes.  Just think of all those “making of” documentaries on DVD movies.


Carrie Lobman, Ed.D., is associate professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education and the East Side Institute’s director of pedagogy. She founded the Institute’s Developing Teachers Fellowship Program and currently supervises NYC public and charter schoolteachers. She is a sought-after workshop leader and frequently presents to meetings of the American Educational Research Association, The Association for the Study of Play and the International Society for Cultural and Activity Research. She is co-author of Unscripted Learning: Using Improvisation Across the K-8 Curriculum. 

Why improv?

On Friday I was having a conversation with a new friend and colleague I met at the NYC Applied Improvisation Network and he asked me the question, “Why improv?” in business.  My response had a lot to do with my understanding of and appreciation for “the power of play” – play is where development, creativity and innovation takes place.  I invited him to a fundraiser that was held yesterday for the East Side Institute http://www.eastsideinstitute.org/ to get a taste of the cutting edge approaches to learning, development, therapeutics and community-building that are sponsored by the organization.   

At the event I introduced my entrepreneurial colleague to the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, Cathy Salit. POAL is one of the premier training organizations doing theatre-based executive education http://www.performanceofalifetime.com and Cathy happens to be a long-time colleague of mine (we perform musical improv comedy together in the Proverbial Loons).  It was helpful to hear Cathy talk about the therapeutic aspect of the work she and POAL does, creating new possibilities for individuals and therefore for groups/organizations.

On Sundays I always enjoy reading Adam Bryan’s “Corner Office” column in the New York Times.  Ironically yesterday he started his interview with Mark Fuller, CEO of WET Design with a discussion of improvisation.  I was happy to see this and sent the link to my friend.  This is the quote that jumped out at me:

If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening. That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.

I love that Fuller starts out by talking about the mundane arguments we all have and, although he doesn’t say that, the activity of improvisation, of performing, of pretending in life in a self-conscious manner is undeniably developmental.  And I have to say that most of my day is spent interviewing people and I do have to underline what Fuller is saying about “serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening” but I will save that topic for another blog post!

Back to the fundraiser at the East Side Institute – Dr. Lenora Fulani, the Dean of the All Stars Project’s new initiative UX, and a co-founder of the All Stars gave a presentation on her work.  She has recently co-written a paper with Dr. Fred Newman, her fellow co-founder of the All Stars called “Let’s Pretend” (use this link to download “Let’s Pretend” http://bit.ly/gQk9ja ).  Although the paper was written to solve the education crisis in America, I think there is enormous value in taking the fundamental methodology of this paper into boardrooms and offices as well.  If we pretend we can become … better learners, better leaders and better people.

Why improv?  Let’s keep performing our answer to this most important question.