Nancy Watt: Improve your Relationships through Improv

Nancy Watt: Improve your Relationships through Improv

In this episode Nancy and I talk about cultivating an improv mindset and approach and how that can actually strengthen your relationships.

We can only control how we choose to show up, and yet with the intention to connect, we can definitely influence how other people respond (versus react) to us.

In our conversation you’ll learn more about:

· The improv principle of “Yes, and…”

· How to accept even when you don’t agree

· How to shift out of binary thinking through improv

· How silence can create connection

· How your brain works with improv

· Creating an ensemble environment for better communication and teamwork

· How to break through resistance and embrace adaptability

Listen to the Podcast Now

Guest bio:

Nancy is President of NANCY WATT COMMUNICATIONS, a specialized consulting and creative agency that works with all sectors exploring the social science of collaboration, communication and connection. Using a ‘Pracademic’ approach, Nancy Watt elucidates evidence-based research in an engaging and entertaining way using the tools and techniques of improv honed from her days at The Second City Conservatory in Toronto. This

form of experiential learning has been used in diverse setting with a wide swath of clients from marginalized populations to the judiciary, medical school faculty and law societies.

In order to capture effective experiential learning, she builds a camaraderie-filled ensemble where the participants learn while laughing.

Rated in the top five Leadership Workshops at Microsoft’s global conference for the last four years, NITA’s Communication Specialist and regular at corporate team building events, Nancy Watt delivers powerfully creative and memorable sessions. Her dynamic workshops on communication, leadership and collaboration directly impacts any organization that needs to deal with unpredictability, build mental agility and foster innovative thinking.

Her workshops have been delivered to Engineering and Science departments at Harvard University, Princeton, MIT, Rutgers, New Jersey Institute of Technology, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, and McMaster University.

Nancy is busy in the business, healthcare, and education sectors. Her work is referenced in academic papers for pedagogical experiential learning.

She’s from Second City’s Improv Conservatory and Sketch Writing Programs in Toronto and Chicago. She has a B.A in Psychology, Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology, is a Certified Improv Practitioner, Diversity and Inclusion Executive Program from Cornell University, and EQ-i Emotional Intelligence Certified.

Nancy is writing H.A.P.P.I.E., How to Apply Positive Psychology Improv Exercise.



Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Seniors' Care Matters, part of the Qod Pod Network . Each week, Seniors' Care Matters provides inspiring interviews and insights to help you lead, connect and engage with your teams and your residents' families. We focus on ways to enhance your leadership approach and presence with practical tips, to build a relational culture and create breakthrough results. And now here's your host for Seniors' Care Matters, Deborah Bakti.

Deb (00:31):

On today's show, we're going to be pulling back the curtain on improv and how embracing an improv mindset and approach can actually improve your communication skills and help you better connect with people - whether they're your coworker, your manager, your customers, or your family and friends. And how we can have some fun while we're at it, and really who couldn't use a little more fun these days. I met Nancy through a positive psychology program we were taking a few years ago. She had this intriguing presence about her, and I quickly learned how improv was a big part of this presence that she shared with others. Here's some of Nancy's bio information, and you can read more about her on her website. A link will be provided in the show notes.

Deb (01:18):

Nancy is President of Nancy Watt Communications who works with all sectors, exploring the social science of collaboration, communication, and connection. Using a pracademic approach, Nancy elucidates evidence-based research in an engaging and entertaining way using the tools and techniques of improv honed from her days at The Second City Conservatory in Toronto. This form of experiential learning has been used in diverse settings with a wide range of clients from marginalized populations to the judiciary, medical school faculty and law societies. In order to capture effective experiential learning, Nancy builds a camaraderie filled ensemble where the participants learn while laughing. She has a lengthy list of clients she's supported through teaching and workshops - too long to reference here, and her website has lots of great information about her organization and offerings. Her dynamic workshops on communication, leadership and collaboration directly impacts any organization that needs to deal with unpredictability, build mental agility and foster innovative thinking. Yes, I think Senior's Care checks off all of those boxes. I'll have all the links in the show notes. She shares some fascinating research and resources that you'll want to check out.

In my book Recipe for Empathy, one of the chapters is all about curiosity, and we talk about how improv taps into and develops your curiosity. She shares the "Yes, and..." principle of improv and how it can actually help us to be more

adaptable. And having a healthy adaptability quotient is the new EQ (emotional intelligence). 2020 has shown us how important it is to be able to adapt to the constant change in our environments and lives, and dare I use that word to PIVOT when it feels like the rug's being pulled out beneath us. Playing with the "yes, and..." approach can build your adaptability and even enjoy a few laughs in the process. I hope you enjoy the conversation and are inspired to embrace an improv mindset and approach.

Break (03:41):

When you need podcasts that inspire you, podcasts that help you live your best life podcasts that speak to you, podcasts that are easy to listen to. You'll find them on the Qod Pod network coming soon.

Deb (03:56):

Hey Nancy, welcome to Seniors' Care Matters. I'm so glad you were able to join me today.

Nancy (04:01):

So happy to be here. Thanks Deb.

Deb (04:04):

Well, I'm really looking forward to digging into your mind when it comes to improv and that improv mindset and improv approach and how leaders and staff in seniors care could actually take an improv approach when they're looking at how to build better teamwork, how to be able to communicate more effectively.

Nancy (04:26):

So when we want our teams to build cohesion, or we need them to be more creative, or we need them to build their adaptability quotient, whatever, there are very specific improv exercises that can cultivate because you know, a theory is still just a theory. It's still just in a textbook. And as you and I know, experiential learning is the best learning. The improv mindset is something that has helped so many, and it has transformed our education sector. It's helping our medical students. I do a lot of work with physician communication and a ton in STEM trying to teach engineers to communicate better than they do.

Nancy (05:12):

The improv mindset is one of curiosity, wonder acceptance. The principle of improv is something called "Yes, and..." Yes, and...which means if, when you and I are on stage together, if you come on stage and you create your environment, as your listeners know improv doesn't have a set design or costumes or props, we make our environment. If you come on stage and you say, Whoa, you know, grab the sails, the storm's coming in. You know, you offer me the environment that the fact that we are on a sailboat, I yes to that. I agree with that. I accept that that is where we are. It doesn't mean I have to like it.

Nancy (05:58):

Acceptance is not agreement, but I accept the reality that has been created. The AND part of the Yes, and... improv mindset is where I heighten, or I add my own voice. And I say Yes, and... Oh, it's the East wind comin'. They told us about this one that we left or something like that, you know and away we go in this scene. Many people might think that that is simplistic to just Yes, and... to just accept and build, but I promise you, it's not. The number one reason why miscommunication happens is because we don't accept the reality of the other. And I dare say why we are so politically polarized today. You know, why we just can't seem to move forward when we do not, when we immediately have a reaction, as opposed to a response to someone's reality, I promise you the difference between a reaction and a response is huge and developing your improv skills and co-creating and listening and learning to communicate effectively is all a part of the experiential applied improv process.

Deb (07:10):

So you talk about that ability to be curious, and to be open and have that kind of, I think of it like that soft energy of acceptance versus the resistance. And I also feel like we can very easily get stuck in binary thinking, particularly when we're feeling under stress to make a quick decision or we get reactive. And I think of a staff member may be dealing with an angry family member of one of their residents and that immediate kind of putting the defenses up in preparing their response or their answer, I should say, in preparing their answer or their reaction to the emotion that they're seeing. So in a situation like that, where someone is feeling that they're being criticized or judged, how could they bring a Yes, and... approach to that interaction?

Nancy (08:03):

Brilliant - you have it. I love that synopsis - binary thinking how we immediately let our amygdala take over and we already form our defensiveness before we allow a response. In theater and in improv, we often invite silence as another character on stage. And I promise you from a theatrical point of view, audiences love it. Silence allows for us to be in the moment. It is a very intentional and mindful choice. Silence on stage anyway, might breed intimacy or fear or tension or something. It also dissipates the tension in the the room. Silence allows a mirror for both the listener and the speaker. Silence allows that ability to hear what we just said and not defensively react to it. You know, hear what's something has just triggered us and be able to absorb that.

Nancy (09:12):

You might be familiar with you know the term flooding? That psychological physiological, emotional state whereby our cognitive processes are limited. We truly get dumber. We don't think well when we are afraid, when we are, and we go to that binary thinking and we have our blinders on, and the wonderful thing - the trick about that is that we think we're being focused. We think we're being, we think we are being productive and we are being anything but. We are, we have no peripheral. We have that we do not see. We have that binary thinking, and all we can see is straight ahead. And, having an improv mindset changes that, or having, forcing us to confront that cognitive distortion and allow ourselves to wonder, or be silent, or take a step back and open up the possibility of what might else be happening both with us is, is so necessary. I mean, flooding, I don't know about you, flooding happens to me when I, if I have an argument with a sibling or my husband or something, and in the moment I get literally flooded with emotion and I, and I don't know what to say.

Nancy (10:32):

And then I don't know, maybe on the drive home, I'm thinking, well, why didn't I say that! All of a sudden I become brilliant. And that's just a good example of how letting, how flooding works.

Deb (10:46):

And I think of the research that I think her name's Fredrickson did on the Broaden and Build theory.

Nancy (10:54):

Yes. Barbara Fredrickson.

Deb (10:55):

And because when we, that narrowing, because we are in that fight or flight, so in that situation with an angry family member who wants an immediate resolution to something, and the staff member is trying to gather their wits about them and understand what's going on and dealing with that fight or flight, it's hard to look at that broader picture. But what I'm hearing you say is having an improv mindset, even in that moment, can help to open up that perspective, to be able to choose to take a different approach and a more effective response.

Nancy (11:33):

You've got it. There's a great researcher at Berkeley, Dr. Charles Limb, he's got a great Ted talk called "Your brain on improv". He did functional MRI on people who are, who were in an improvised state. He looked at jazz musicians. He looked at improv actors, and what he found intrigued me. The part of the brain that is suppressed when we do improv, what does not get activated is something called the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for this guardedness, the self monitoring, that inner critic, that nasty little editor in our head, I like to call it the "headitor" that voice in our head that says, don't, don't do that. You know, better not risk it. In improv, in an improvised state when we are playing and creating and deeply in the moment you and I together, understandably, that is suppressed.

Nancy (12:32):

What lights up is called the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for self-expression and closely aligned to feelings of freedom. I mean, that is what we want. That is what we need our team members to feel. That is what, more than anything else, and especially in long term care, we need people to feel psychologically safe with interpersonal risk taking. We want them to feel authentic. We want them to feel that mistakes are understood and will be accepted and that they are part of a team that has their back. And that we parallel that with building an ensemble, because right after the rule of Yes, and... in improv, the second rule of improv is make your partner look good. Make your partner look good. When I, when my focus on stage is you Deb, and all I want is to make you look great. That is, I mean, magic happens. I'm deeply attuned to you. I am mindful. I am Yes, and'ing. And things happen. There is an energy and a collaborative creativity that emerges when my self-centered self is not focused on me but focused on you.

Deb (13:55):

Yes. And if you've got a team of people who are embracing the improv mindset, as I'm working to make you look as good as possible, you are doing the same with me.

Nancy (14:06):

Exactly. We do. We have each other's back.

Deb (14:12):

You continue to adapt and adjust with all the pandemic policies and protocols with admitting and moving in new residents. You're dealing with limitations in building a connection and relationships with your new residents' families. If you're looking for powerful ways to connect and build trust with your new families during COVID-19, please head over to my website at Or click the link in the show notes. And I'll send you 10 great ideas that you can implement immediately to create trust and connection with your families.

Break (14:45):

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Deb (15:15):

So if we look at this from a practical standpoint, I think about where some of the bottlenecks can happen in a team culture is the, well, we've never done it that way. We can't do it that way. You don't understand why that won't work. Right. All of those Ya Buts, and, and No's - the doors get closed. And the shutting off of any kind of discussion, because you may have someone who's got, they've got the clinical experience. And the understanding of this is the way that we need to do it. How can somebody's listening to this and thinking, yeah, like I work with somebody who keeps shutting me down all the time. I think I've got these great ideas and I don't seem to be getting anywhere. And then it's frustrating and it's draining. And that, that fray that starts to happen and the lack of trust with the team. So is there an exercise or a mindset shift that you can offer that if a listener's wanting to try something new, to be creative and try some improv?

Nancy (16:21):

I love, I love that question. And I love that you said yes, but. Yes, but. Oh my God, our organizations are riddled with that praise, you know? Yes, but...yes, but we can't do it that way because we don't have the budget. Yes, but it's a Tuesday. We can't do that because it's a Tuesday. Yes, but you know and...yes, but really is a no. It's a polite no. It's a Canadian no. Still a NO!, It is still a no. Keith Johnstone, a pioneering improviser said with yes, you are rewarded with the adventure that you will take. With no, you are rewarded with the security you retain. And let me tell you, let me save your listeners a world of hurt because by saying, no, you are, Oh, the pain is in the resistance.

Nancy (17:14):

Adaptability is where our organizations are changing. There will be more change happening in the next 10 years than there was in the last 100. It is adaptability is now seen as the new social science metric, the new organizational development metric for those who can mentally pivot for those who can deal with unpredictability and think on their feet. That IBM and the RBC white paper and Harvard Business Review, everyone's talking about this adaptability quotient. I would offer your listeners this exercise. It takes too long to explain Deb, sorry, but I did for the neurological reasoning as to why this works, but it is an exercise in listening and it's a simple game it's called Headlines. And it forces us to listen to the end of the sentence of the speaker.

Nancy (18:18):

Because very often when we have said "yes, but" it's because we already know the answer and we've stopped listening and we've already got our defenses up and we know where we're going. Headlines is a simple game. You can play it at home around the dinner table with your colleagues around the lunchroom, whatever. Headline, someone says, a headline, you know, storm warnings over Ontario province. And then, province offers new initiative to education. And education is the new capitalism. I don't know, but we take the last word. The first word of your headline must be the last word of the previous one. And what this forces Our brains to do is to not think about our response until we have heard the very last line of the other. And I'll tell you, it totally works.

Nancy (19:15):

I would encourage your listeners to repeat back before they say "yes, but" I would offer them an opportunity to say "yes, and..." to simply allow themselves to cognitively and emotionally accept what they have just heard to repeat back. Yes, so I see you'd like the meetings, the monthly meetings moved to Friday afternoons instead of Monday. Again, giving yourself that acceptance of the reality of the other and allowing the speaker to feel like he has been heard. Vitally important in building teamwork and leadership. Yes, and... Invite the silence, repeat back what they have said and magical things happen in that moment of time, whereby you might just offer yourself an opportunity to say, well, maybe Fridays would work if we move this and this. Your binary thinking that you mentioned earlier, we are so quick, we are so inundated with information. We feel like we have to make decision after decision after decision quickly. And the wonderful thing about an improv mindset is that different, innovative and creative solutions happen when we don't have that pressure on ourselves, you know, it's a different type of pressure. It's a different type of mindfulness.

Deb (20:46):

And there's a level of playfulness with the improv. And that willingness to have fun. And I've done some improv exercises with you and that feeling of silliness that can happen to break the protection that sometimes we put around ourselves and let's face it, Healthcare is a serious business. Seniors care is a serious business. And to be able to create an environment from a team perspective, to have some fun and lightheartedness and allow ourselves to be playful is what I see the work that you do with that and how it breaks down the, even the roles that people feel they need to project based on their title.

Nancy (21:37):

So true. Oh my God. I got to talk to you later about the surgeons and the lawyers, because absolutely we are often in positions of authority and we hold great accountability and responsibility for the work that we do. And I study leadership alot and in the end, our greatest leaders are those who are deeply authentic and can accept themselves with humility and with a learner mindset. And laughter is so necessary. It's so playful. It is what connects. It is ultimately the universal language. The wonderful thing about the development of deep and authentic teamwork, especially in a very serious and responsible position like long term care is that we can offer ourselves that ability to think innovatively and creatively while we embed humor and humility and authenticity into our teams. It's so necessary and deeply ironic that the more serious we take ourselves, we become less effective.

Deb (22:55):

Well, and as you're describing that, I think about it as that ability to reset through improv, You've just dealt with something that's been a little bit intense or difficult, and then you come together with your team and you're able to intentionally reset by using improv exercise or mindset or approach, or even just being able to say, okay, let's just, let's just Yes, and... some things let's just play with this concept of Yes, and. And what we typically would say no, but, or yes, but to, to be able to say, let's just see what we can create and we're not engraving anything in stone here! We'll see what kind of, I mean, we talk about brainstorming in corporate business world all the time. And to me, improv is a form of brainstorming with a spice of playfulness.

Nancy (23:51):

Absolutely. In fact, there's a great book called Gamestorming. Not brainstorming. And there's a lot of improv techniques in that. And I love the word reset, Deb and I also I would submit that in the, in this age, it is more important and more challenging not to learn, but to unlearn. I do a lot of product development with different companies and different types of brainstorming challenges and where they're always going is what they've always known. And real progress is made only when we stop and force ourselves over that speed bump, you unlearn to unlearn what we thought, we know, what we thought we knew. And then watch the possibilities unfold.

Deb (24:45):

Well, you hear all sorts of stories of organizations that had a three year plan to develop a product or program. And they've done it in three months because of the necessity through the crisis that we're working with. But I love this conversation.

And I think that there's some great resources that you have indicated that you want to offer to the listeners. So let us know where people can find you and what offers you're making available for them.

Nancy (25:14):

So there are two things that I would like offer. Thank goodness that there are many improv exercises that translate well on zoom. And so I've been doing these ridiculously fun and very productive zoom, online improv workshops. And it is absolutely, it will inoculate you from zoom fatigue. So I offer that to you and your listeners at 50% off the going rate. And you can contact me through my website at Nancy Watt communications. And that is And then there is, and then I've been working a lot with a UK company who has now developed the assessment for AQ. We all know IQ. And since it started at Yale university, 25 years ago, EQ, or our emotional quotient, emotional intelligence in leadership and team building has become really important. And that is all well and good and as it should be. Watch for, if you haven't already heard of AQ, this is coming down the pipe hard and fast, especially in the, especially in the last few months. Some of us are adapting and others are not, some of us are falling down and not getting up and others are okay So there is now a valid,it is the new social science metric, and I can offer 10. I have permission that I can offer 10 assessments, which is about a good size for a leadership team, 10 AQ assessments for the cost five, which is 250 pounds. It's like 500 instead of that. And it comes with an applied improv workshop and a review of the social science and the social psychology evidence-based research that went into it.

Deb (27:13):

So that the AQ is the adaptability quotient. Well, yes, I think we all need it. And so I'll make sure that all of those links are in the show notes. And just want to say, thank you so much, Nancy, for being a guest today. I think some great concepts and ideas, and some practical ways to be able to bring improv into our teams and in our leadership.

Nancy (27:41):

Deb from the, I want to quickly, if I may offer my deep gratitude of thanks. I have a cousin, I am legal guardian to a cousin who is in long term care. And I know the space. I am acutely aware of some of the challenges, and I just want to offer truly from the bottom of my heart, my thanks, and my gratitude for the work that is done in this sector. And thanks so much, the time did fly and I had a great time.

Deb (28:13):

Awesome. Thanks Nancy.

Close (28:19):

Thanks so much for listening to Seniors' Care Matters. Part of the Qod Pod network. For more information on today's episode, please check out our show notes and visit Join us next week for another great episode of Seniors' Care Matters.

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