The UCB Theatre is a famous improv breeding ground. -Courtesy of Flickr user Marcin Wichary

Self-awareness is important, and I’m able to admit that I’m fairly awkward. In one-on-one conversations and small group settings, I’m generally fine. However, in front of an audience or among many people, the awkwardness intensifies.

Clichès are cringe-inducing, but some are worth embracing: A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.

Yuck. I know. But there’s truth to it.

I wanted to become more natural and less inhibited in front of groups of people by leaving my comfort zone.

Since I don’t have the body of a porn star, I crossed that option off immediately. What, then, could I do to try to make myself more confident and better at communicating?

I decided to improvise. And I went with signing up for an improv class in Philadelphia.

When people think of improv comedy, names like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Steve Carell come to mind. Most Saturday Night Live cast members are plucked straight out of improv groups like the Upright Citizens Brigade or Second City. “The Office” showrunner Greg Daniels prioritized an improv background for actors on the show, saying in regards to acting, “Improv is a good tool to make it seem more natural.”

Despite the star-studded industry propped up around the art form, you don’t need to have Hollywood aspirations to benefit from taking an improv class.

In day-to-day life, we are constantly improvising. Our conversations and personal interactions don’t come with a script. As aspiring professionals, we are constantly lectured on the importance of solid communication and people skills.

Much of my time in the improv class consisted of acting out scenes in front of the class with one or two other actors. This checked my box for “wanting to become better in group interactions.” Typically, someone in the class would provide the relationship between the actors in the scene and the setting in which it would take place.

For instance, a class member might have given the two people performing the roles of student and teacher, and the setting might be a classroom.

That’s about all you’re given to work with in improv. You know the setting, your relationship to the other person, and then you’re tasked with producing a worthwhile interaction. Oftentimes, these scenes will fall under a broader game, like “High-Low Status,” where one person is low-status during the interaction and the other person is high-status. Halfway through, the low-status person must do something to gain the upper-hand and become high-status.

Playing games with a group of strangers in which you’re trying to make people laugh seems silly on the surface.

But I learned some valuable lessons doing so:

Embrace the uncomfortable. Many times in life, we won’t do or say something because we worry about how we will look. Improv forces you to say something, anything, to keep the scene moving. You don’t have time to second-guess yourself, and after a while of this, overall inhibitions loosen up.

Actively listen. “What did he just say? I was too busy thinking of what my response would be and I totally missed it.” Does this ever happen to you? Life doesn’t come with a script, and always focusing on something clever or insightful to say in response to someone can leave them feeling unheard. Improv forces you to listen closely to everything your partner says, since your fictional relationship to one another is unraveling in real-time through your dialogue. Everyone wants to feel heard. By actively listening, we make the speaker feel valued and, in turn, can easily come up with a relevant response.

I’m not funny. Okay, I’m pretty funny. What I mean by this is that we shouldn’t try too hard to appear a certain way in our interactions, whether that be intelligent, humorous, mysterious, etc. You never know how the other person will perceive you, and trying to fit into some self-imposed mold will only make you appear unnatural and stiff.

It’s not always about us as individuals. Improv is all about the team. If one person tries to steal the spotlight, it’ll be obvious and ruin the mood. Sometimes we may put our own interests first, but it’s important to consider how our actions and decisions will affect others.

While I may have gotten preachy about improv, it’s not a perfect solution to become a master communicator. However, if you’re looking for a way to feel uncomfortable, not know what’s going on and make a fool of yourself, improv is perfect for you. And you may just learn something about human interaction in the process.

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