Can an Improv Class Really Help Your Career?

It certainly could, if you decide to accept offers, resist blocking and respond to nearly every request with “Yes, and…”

A class in improvisation is likely toward the bottom of an attorney’s to-do list. Or quite possibly toward the bottom of everyone’s to-do list. Why? When? Who has the time? How would this be relevant? After all, improv classes just bring together a bunch of strangers who sit around for a couple of hours and do wacky things like create scenes, practice space object work, tell stories collaboratively, and crack each other up. What could you possibly learn from that?

Within the first 10 minutes of your first class, you would discover three ways to hone your improvisational skills: coach others, watch an improv show or participate in an improv class, which is the route most people pursue. No-one takes a class to learn how to improvise; that’s something that we all do every day, some better than others. However, you can practice—improvisators like to call it play—and along the way, you’ll learn about some of the major concepts of improvisation that you can easily apply to your career search.

Accept Offers

You’ve no doubt seen the talented performers on such television shows as “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” take an opening phrase and build an entire scene around it. In our daily lives, we do this all the time when we interact with people in conversation. We listen to what the other person just said and play off that. Or they listen to us and do the same. The key to great improv—and thus a great interaction with someone—is to be present in the moment and really listen to every word the other person has said. Sounds obvious, right?

How often do we actually do this? And how about when the conversation relates to our career? Kimm Alayne Walton, author of Guerrilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams, always advised law students to share their career aspirations with everyone they know: hairdressers, letter carriers, bartenders, even nosy co-workers and crazy relatives. You never know where you will hear about an emerging field, learn a new fact, or make a valuable connection that might further your career.

Improv coaches will also encourage you to “speak to the topic offered.” Career-wise, this might mean listening to a colleague talk about a new law firm opening a local office or a tech company expanding its legal department. On the surface, neither may be of immediate interest to you—how refreshing might it be, however, for you to keep an open mind and listen attentively with an ear toward how this information or this person might somehow help advance your career.

Resist Blocking

This is the yang to accepting offers. How easy is it for us to say “No, thanks!” and shut the conversation down. Improv literally dies when someone blocks an offer. Think about conversations you’ve had with so-called Debbie Downers who always feel the need to negate everything. Or maybe you’re the sad sack who manages to find something wrong in everything you hear. Perhaps not surprisingly, attorneys—educated to be critical thinkers—often find this step the most challenging.

If someone tells you about a new area of legal practice, for example, as challenging as it might be, put those critical thinking skills on hold for just a moment. Before automatically responding with “I could never do that!” or “How would I ever make that kind of job transition?” instead consider the end result first. You’ll have plenty of time down the road to think about how to get there, which is where most of the blocking occurs. Try to be open to career possibilities instead of unconsciously closing the door.

Blockers also ignore and disregard. Even easier than saying “No, thanks!” is not saying or thinking anything at all. Sometimes when we just put our careers on auto-pilot, we assume that everything will work out great. Without thinking, we have automatically blocked out any conversations that might relate to career advancement or changing directions.

Practice “Yes, and…”

Once you’ve decided to accept offers and resist blocking, it’s time to really build on the conversation. If someone asks, “Say, why don’t we go and take an improv class—I’ve always wanted to do that.” You might resist the offer and respond, “Yeah, no, that’s okay. Not my cup of tea.” You might ignore the question altogether. Or you could practice “Yes, and…” and instead say, “That would be great, and maybe we’ll meet some really cool people in the class.”

Improv classes aside, practicing “Yes, and…” entails being open and supportive—not just with others, but most importantly with yourself—while listening, responding, and engaging in the moment. By including the word “and…” it goes beyond the recent celebrity trends (“say yes to everything for a year!”) and forces you to invest in whatever you want the next steps to be. Career-wise, “Yes, and…” thinking encourages you to consider possibilities, explore options and become an active participant in shaping your future.

Used in concert with accepting offers and resisting blocking, “Yes, and…” can be a powerful tool as you contemplate your next career move. You’ve listened fully, you’ve responded, and now it’s time to build on the conversation. Who knows where the conversation—and your career—will lead?

About the Author

Skip Horne is the senior assistant dean for external relations at Santa Clara University School of Law and wrote this article on behalf of the American Bar Association Legal Career Central. He finally took his first improv class three years ago. Contact him at mhorne@scu.edu or 408.554.2706.

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