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When I was starting my career as a creative strategist, a seasoned pro much wiser than me told me, “We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Man, that has stuck with me!  While evolutionary biologists would probably have some pretty cool explanations for why we have two ears and only one mouth, I choose to take this as a reminder to listen.

In improv, we have to (have to! have to!) listen. Intently. And with our whole bodies. When we’re on stage, everything our teammates say and do is a gift. If we’re in our heads, thinking about what to do next, working on something clever to say, we’re missing a whole mess of gifts. What this means is that we’re not serving the scene and we’re not serving our teammates.

Listening is actually the superpower of improv. Most people see an improv show and think “How can they be so quick on their feet? So clever and funny without scripts? They must be naturally funny. I can never do that.”  Here’s the secret: What looks like being quick witted and naturally funny is actually really really good listening and honest reactions.

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If I took a straw poll, I’d be willing to bet most – if not all – of us would say we want to be better listeners. Who wouldn’t say ‘yes’ to that? We know it’s what we should do. In the era of emotional intelligence, ‘active listening’ has become a watchword. But when it comes actually doing it in the workplace, we have a hard time. We’re trained to be problem solvers which translates into thinking of solutions. When we’re in work sessions, meetings, or even just conversations with colleagues, we’re in solution mode, too often up in our own heads thinking of how to solve a problem, thinking of what to say next, and NOT really listening. We too often forget that communication is so much more than what we’re saying but really about what we’re hearing.

Here's the good news, according to research by McKinsey, improving communication in the workplace can improve productivity by 25%. In another study by Salesforce, employees who feel heard are almost 5X more likely to feel empowered to deliver their best work. By the way, when employees feel empowered, they are also more loyal.

Improving listening = improving the bottom line.

More good news: Listening is a skill that we can get better at. 

Improv LAB: Listen with our whole bodies.
93% of what we understand in communication is through nonverbal communication. This includes facial expression, body language, tone, and inflection. So, only 7% of what we get in communication is from the actual words.

Listening works the same way. We can listen with our whole bodies, picking up what our ears hear and our gut is telling us. Sensing what our body is doing – stances, arm position, etc. – while we’re listening.  We just need to pay attention. But, it takes practice.

Here’s a way to practice. The next time we’re in a conversation – whether it’s one on one or a big meeting – we can actively listen* and ask ourselves these two simple yet potent questions:
•    What did I learn based on what they said?
•    What did I learn based on what they didn’t say?


The first one is easy and not particularly illuminating, but good practice to make sure we’re picking up on everything. It’s the second question that can really be profound. When we listen with our whole bodies we pick up all kinds of information – what motivates others, what emotions people experience and why, etc. – which can unlock not only deeper connections with our colleagues but also new insight and new solutions.


*Listening Tip: Truly listening makes us present. A misconception people often have is that they need to get present so that they can really pay attention. That works, but just the act of engaged listening makes us present. So, don’t wait, just listen!

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