Strong interpersonal skills are the “soft skills” that help us successfully live, work, collaborate, and exist with others. Professionals with strong interpersonal skills hone these capabilities through daily practice and repetition. However, many professionals with less developed interpersonal skills struggle to learn and incorporate them into their daily lives.
Improvisational theater, at its core, is all about interpersonal skills. Lessons can be learned and applied from improv that can help employees and leaders to grow interpersonal skills that can benefit their personal and professional lives.
Five Steps to Improving Interpersonal Communication
Step One: Be Cognizant of Yourself
Self-awareness is the practice of consciously being aware of what you are thinking and feeling, and why you are doing so. This activity falls within the realm of emotional intelligence, a term coined by author, psychologist, and Big Think expert Daniel Goleman. Emotional intelligence encompasses:
- Empathy, and
- Relationship building.
Being aware of your own emotions and your non-verbal communication can significantly benefit your interpersonal communication skills. In theater, you need to be mindful of yourself before you can listen or respond to others. And, the subconscious messages you convey to others can impact their perception, so a lack of self-awareness can be detrimental to the success and productivity of your relationships with others—and with your organization overall.
Step Two: Be Conscious, Respectful, and Empathetic Toward Others
Everyone is entitled to their own thoughts and opinions — even when they differ from yours. When you engage positive interpersonal skills, you allow others to express themselves without automatically jumping on them—meaning that you’re genuinely listening to what they have to say (see step three for more about active listening). Wait until they finish and respond to express your thoughts on the topic in a non-confrontational way.
Big Think expert, actor, and author Alan Alda shares that being conscious of others and reading their “visual clues” through visual perception helps people become more aware and empathetic of others. Making a conscious effort to notice and read their eyes, body language, and other visual clues helps you better understand and consciously interact with them.
Step Three: Actively Listen to Others
Much like a professional craft or trade, listening is a skill that must be developed and honed. However, the education system and many employers emphasize the importance of being able to read, write, and speak well while mostly under-emphasizing or ignoring the need for strong listening skills.
The good news is that every conversation you have provides opportunities to develop and build that “muscle” and improve your craft. By listening to understand rather than listening to respond, you demonstrate that what the person you are speaking with has to say is important to you.
A Big Think article outlines the three “outward and visible signs” of open listening from Center for Courage & Renewal founder, writer, speaker, and activist Parker J. Palmer:
- Embracing brief, reflective silences by pausing rather than rushing to respond. Using silence, you honor those who speak, give yourself and others in the conversation time to absorb what has been said, and slow things down enough so that anyone who wishes to speak can do so.
- Responding to the speaker with open questions and not with commentary. This action shows that you care enough to want to learn more about what another person has to say.
- Honoring others’ truth-telling by speaking yours openly. This practice allows you to engage and share your testimony and thoughts without affirming or negating other speakers
Step Four: Avoid Talking Over Others or Speaking for Them
It is easy to unintentionally jump in and accidentally cut someone off while they are speaking. However, when this happens on a regular basis, it shows a lack of listening skills and can be perceived as you not valuing what they have to say. Although this may not be what you intend to convey, it is a message that can be received loud and clear by your family, friends, or colleagues.
Building on step four, allow the person to have time to finish their thought and do not presume to know what they want to say. Give them the respect they deserve by giving them the time to say it for themselves.
Step Five: Collaborate More by Saying “Yes” Before Saying “No”
Big Think expert, actor, and comedian Chris Gethard says borrowing from improvisational theater skills can benefit everyone by helping them achieve a more positive mindset that benefits collaboration. It is about saying “yes” and building on it rather than shutting down the conversation with a “no.”
“Improv really revolves around the idea of, ‘whatever you come at me with, I’m going to say yes to it.’ That’s our reality. Let’s get to work. Let’s start there… ‘See if there’s a way to take it somewhere else,’ versus ‘here’s all the things that are wrong with it.’ I think it’s just a very positive mentality.”