Listen. Laugh. Learn.

Laughter is a really good thing! When I discovered that the legendary Chicago-based company Second City teaches workplace skills through improv, I was ready to sign up.

A bit of a search took me to a site called Big Think on which I found a video featuring Tom Yorton, CEO of Second City Works.

“Somewhere along the line, someone decided training should be stiff and awful, and we just don’t buy that,” says Yorton, “and so the corporate-training arm of Second City was created.” How could the breeding ground for comedic greats from John Belushi to Tina Fey not include humor?

“Here, the audience is not just listening,” adds Yorton, “it’s experiential. Using humor to get people to loosen up helps the lessons stick. Research has shown that people retain humorous messages, funny lines and videos and tend to pass them on.”

The Second City Works tagline? “Where the buttoned down learn the Belushi method.”

As you know, I have written about the importance of listening and experiential learning several times over the years. I think it is so vital. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that Yorton’s talk is titled “Listening: The most important skill that nobody learns,” which he addresses through the lens of improvisation.

The Second City workshops draw on years of experience working with collaborative improv troupes. The core tenets of their improv work cultivate a level of attentiveness to others that newcomers to the craft are often surprised that they have not learned.

Success in the purely spontaneous narrative form, they note, relies on listening to the totality of what other participants say before responding. How great it was to learn that Yorton believes in, as do I, the importance of listening to understand as opposed to listening merely to respond.

Performers of improv must necessarily be attentive to the entirety of what their collaborators say lest the performance becomes imbalanced or incoherent. This contrasts with a common (and largely unconscious) practice in daily life of passively waiting for the chance to utter predetermined monologues or defend one’s fixed ideas.

What they’re learning, ideally, is to tap into not only the skills used by improv actors — sharpened listening, quick processing — but their processes: building on one another’s premises to grow new ideas, working seamlessly as a unit, throwing themselves behind a colleague’s next thought.

A few additional tips from Second City Works:

  • Mind your language. Other word-choice tips: Use “I” less, and avoid buzzwords or techno-speak. Avoid “should” in favor of the less dictatorial “could,” which invites contribution and collaboration.
  • Be an active listener. Good listening is more than just eye contact; it’s giving cues to let others know you’re absorbing their ideas. Quiet signals like nodding and facial expressions are powerful communications.
  • Employ a samurai sword. OK, this isn’t on the list, but it worked for Belushi.

Now, on to laughing your way through learning how to be the best listener ever!

Esther C. Bleuel
MF, MFT, MDR
President and Founder
Esther is dedicated to empowering leaders and teams to improve the quality of their work and interpersonal relationships through the mastery of conversational skills. Contact Esther today for assistance with your tough conversations.