Connection Requires Both Give and Take

You cannot build rapport just by validating

I’m taking an improv class, and one of the most important things you need to make a scene work, and build it, is connection.

You have to listen to others.

But just as importantly, you have to listen to yourself.

Most of us are only good at one or the other.

Those who are better at listening to others will hear and validate whatever their partner puts out there — they say “yes,” so to speak — but if they are weaker on listening to themselves, they freeze and don’t have anything else to add. They struggle with adding “and.”

Those who are better at listening to themselves have no qualms about jumping in with ideas, even if it is in no way a logical response to what their partner just did or said. In other words, they only “and” (or, at their worst, say “no, but!” and hijack the scene.)

I am the former.

On Saturday we did a workshop with only one exercise: players would partner off, and each would take turn saying a line. Then, before the other responded, they had to identify 3 things: (1) what their partner said, (2) how they said it, and (3) how they (both the actor and the character) feel in response.

It was remarkable how much some of us missed.

Some actors missed the absolute fury all but rocketing from their partners heads as they said their lines. (“I just wish you’d help around the house more!!” was literally heard as nothing more. Even when the instructor was coaching, urging them to dig deeper, you could see some actors drawing a blank on any underlying emotion, just shaking their head “I really don’t know” as they became visibly more uncomfortable.)

Some actors could accurately assign their partners emotions — even on several layer (“he sounds pissed on the surface, but deep down I bet he’s scared”) but then drew blanks when it came time to answer “how does that make you feel?” Some actors hit a wall when it came time to respond, letting seconds creep by as they silently panicked.

It was remarkable how quickly these scenes died — and that was the merciful outcome. Worse, they’d trail on for several minutes in agonizing boredom, one player bringing something new to the table while the other player simply nodded in agreement or told them “everything will be okay.”

And I realized very quickly: this is just as try in real life.

It’s remarkable how we try to get away with one or the other: either not fully listening to others (barging in on conversations, answering questions that weren’t actually asked, etc.) or by not listening to ourselves (“how do I feel about this? nothing” is always a lie. Even “sarcasm” and “distant” are feelings.)

And I realized that relationships — good ones — require that everyone validate their space on the “stage.” It’s just boring and frustrating if you don’t actually bring energy to the table. It’s not enough to hold back until you have the “right” thing to say. It’s a waste of your time, and everyone else’s. But worse, it leaves you and everyone else in the relationship dark. Holding back until you can swoop in to simply solve problems, or coo words of encouragement, or “actively listen” is not really to engage at all.

You have to actually identify your emotions and motivations, in a vacuum (and apart from others) before it makes sense for you to play, and for any interaction in life to go anywhere and make sense for those involved.

And if you want good shit in life — as in comedy — you have to show up with your “and!”

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