Using the Skills of Improv to Build Better Rapport

improvIf you are unfamiliar with the term, by Improv I mean a form of theatre (improvisational theatre) where what is performed is created in the moment. In its purest form, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in present time, without the use of a prepared script.

A marvellous workshop delivered by Neil Mullarkey at King & Wood Mallesons’ London office taught me so much. Neil was an early pioneer of Improv and set up the Comedy Store in London.

If you’ve seen Improv in action, you might have seen the exercise where each person in a group, say of 4 people, says a word in turn and the group needs to complete sentences that make sense. So it might start as:

I… Went… To… The… Zoo… And…

The challenge is to stay in the moment and trust you will find an appropriate word without thinking ahead to introduce your favourite animal or whatever other thought you had. It’s about really, really listening and forcing yourself not to be thinking ahead about what you want to say. These are important skills for all of us.

It’s about intentional listening – listening to understand rather than listening to respond. As has been said before: ‘Don’t think that when he goes quiet he’s listening – he’s just reloading!’

The other person will give you what are called offers in the Improv world. They might say to you ‘Good morning Doctor’. If we want to build rapport (and if we want to get on better with people we should be doing this), we can respond to the word ‘good’, ‘morning’ or ‘doctor’.

If the other person blocks us with ‘I’m not a doctor’, there are several responses such as ‘Of course – I’d forgotten you’ve retired’ or ‘You’re not a doctor – I’m not a patient!’. Both of these replies mirror the style of the initial riposte and maintain rapport.

Neil uses an acronym LAGER to explain the skills required (and hands out beer mats to help you remember them!).

L – Listen actively for ‘offers’ (sometimes described by therapists as a bid for connection)

A – Accept offers

G – Give offers in return

E – Explore assumptions (your own and others’)

R – Reincorporate previous offers (to build even more rapport)

Most of us get blocked a lot at work. We can easily feel rejected and respond thinking they are a rotter or we can think it was our fault that we got blocked. It might be worth trying these mirroring responses.

Another well-used exercise used in Improv is the ‘Yes, and…’ game. Again this encourages rapport by avoiding a contrary set of exchanges. Whatever the other person says, you start by saying ‘Yes, and…’

It sounds somewhat forced but it works in creating more collaborative, non-judgemental relationships.

It’s about being open to what others are thinking and saying and not closing down our thinking too early.

I’m reminded of the exercise in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast & Slow:

If a bat and ball cost $1.10 and the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

Most of us get this wrong and say $0.10.

We will all benefit from slowing down, really listening, being less judgemental, building more rapport. Maybe we should all learn the art of Improv?

See also,

For more on building rapport on the phone, see





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