I deliver improvisation skill sessions to a variety of corporate clients in order to support innovation and collaborative thinking within teams and departments. For the vast majority of participants it will be their first experience of improvisation. Their only frame of reference is likely to be episodes of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and they almost inevitably fear that they will have to be quick, clever and funny or end up being humiliated in front of their colleagues. The people that book and host these events have to manage their own personal anxiety and also ensure that none of the attendees have a negative experience.
It follows that one of the questions that I’m asked most frequently is “How will the introverts in the group cope with this training session?” Fortunately I am able to address this concern directly as I will probably be the biggest introvert in the room! Having been painfully shy for as long as I can remember I know exactly how it feels to be on the margins of a group of people and trying to find strategies to enter the conversation as painlessly as possible and avoid being rejected. As facilitators we have an opportunity to build an experiential learning environment which supports all styles of interpersonal engagement. We also have a responsibility to build an atmosphere of respect and appreciation for diverse talents and abilities.
What I find works is the concept of the “On ramp” when entering a motorway or freeway there is the lane that feeds in to faster traffic. Depending on location this lane may be steep and short or it may be long and gently sloping. With a large percentage of introverts in a group the “On ramp” to spontaneous improvisation and a high degree of interaction needs be of the right length and gradient. What this means in practice is establishing a culture where it is impossible to make a mistake, to get across the idea that there are guidelines and instructions but the overall purpose is not a slavish and perfect following of the rules but a choice to try out these new ways of thinking and being. It is vital to draw a distinction between education and learning. Education tends to be linear, measurable and akin to computer programming – the teacher inserts information into the brain of the student and tests the student to see if they can retain and regurgitate the information. It is a pass/fail situation and failing a test carries the emotional baggage of shame and rejection. A learning environment is quite different, there is an organic process where the student is encouraged and empowered to try out novel ways of expressing and interacting and there is no “getting it wrong” The element of competition is absent within the group and different talents are celebrated as having value to the overall experience. No one wins or loses and the focus is on a shared process of discovery.
For introverts this means they are free to go at their own pace, to step into the breach when they feel ready and to hang back if they wish to observe for a little longer. The crucial foundation is safety and there is often a moment when a huge and obvious violation of the guidelines is observed by the group and is immediately celebrated. This reinforces the message “Do it your way, at your pace and enjoy the journey” Essentially the whole group – extroverts included – are given permission to simply be themselves in the moment. If they are awkward, tongue tied, confused, inspired, hilarious or boring then it is all good. From such fertile and nurturing ground springs the creative genius that lurks within us all since it was entombed by the fossilising process of contemporary education.
I often tell an event host that the quiet ones will get louder and the loud ones will become more reflective during this process as people start to feel at ease and listen and support each other. I recommend that they watch out for the quiet ones because time and again I have seen the look of mischief in the eyes of an introvert who has found themselves in a high trust level situation where they can finally unleash their unique insights into the human experience. It is a precious moment and for many introverts, myself included, it is transformational.