Shut up! You’re ruining my dinner.

We need a better way to communicate and solve problems … with everyone.

We all know that listening, paying attention, and being kind is essential to every good relationship. And yet, most people feel they can no longer talk to a colleague, a neighbor, or their Uncle Pete at the Thanksgiving dinner table without starting a fight and ruining the meal. Divisiveness is the new national pastime. So, we seek solace from kindred spirits and block out everyone else.

While understandable, walling out others is preventing us from fully doing what we humans are brain-wired to do, connect. To connect we must be willing to participate, and to participate takes time and effort, two precious commodities many of us are often unwilling to part with, including me. Take time. You can ask me to do many things, but don’t ask me to slow down. I want and need to say things and do things. It’s how I roll. Or used to. I’ve learned that taking the time to participate more, to connect more with people, generates more than connections here on LinkedIn. It teaches me something new, opens my mind and my heart, and supports my immune system, seriously. Connection enriches me, us, on so many levels.

My long background in improvisation first taught me how to connect, because doing improv well demands generosity and attentiveness.

“Yes, and…” is the primary rule of improv, which means first, listen and observe, then respond. People mistakenly think that good improv is about quick thinking when it’s actually about being in the present moment and allowing what’s happening to unfold. Improv’s second rule is to “make your partner look good.” That means you’re always looking to see how you can support one another, because your partner’s success and yours are connected.

I often tell my students that if we all lived by the rules of improv, the world would be a better place. Last year, I decided to do something about it. I founded The Project Connect.

The Project Connect is simple in its intent: you can be a member if you are willing to make an effort to connect with others in a meaningful way. I’ve developed programs that use improvisational exercises to help people discover how to connect, find common ground, unearth shared values, enhance empathy, and solve problems. Participants get to know one another in a safe environment and walk away with tools needed for meaningful connection and more effective communication with pretty much anyone in their lives. Kindness, civility, and compassion rise spontaneously as a result of this kind or work. And then… things can begin to change, at the office, in our communities and organizations, even at our dinner tables.

It can happen. It has already started.

Showing Up

Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

You know how to show up. You could not be in business if you didn’t. However, there are those times when we get lost in our thoughts. Our minds are busy thinking about everything but what is happening right now.

Showing up is more than having your butt in a chair. It’s about paying attention to what is going on in the moment. Your body is here but your mind is thinking about a meeting you went to yesterday or wondering what you should do on the weekend. Our intention is to always show up but sometime we get hijacked. Neuroscience tells us why:

On an average the human brain has about 77 thousand thoughts a day. We probably need only about 20 of those thoughts. The rest of the 57 thousand thoughts are thoughts we’ve had before or commentary on what we are experiencing. These thoughts serve no purpose.

This is the work of our default brain.

When we are present, like when we are focusing on a task or a problem, we can work for hours and time flies by. However, when we are not focused on what is happening in the moment our brain can go into its default state where thoughts wander, like when you are driving and you get to your location and wonder how you got there. You missed the trip because your mind was wandering all over the place.

Here is how our default brain operates:

It comments negatively on what we are experiencing.

It dwells in the past or the future.

It is self-referential. It makes everything that is happening seem like it is happening to us, so we take tend take things personally when it’s not personal, like the weather, traffic jams, and especially the actions of others.

Yes our default brain loves to spend time thinking about other people. Wondering what are they doing. Why they are acting that way. What they’re thinking.

The main point is that the default brain tends to be negative. And it does not ask our permission to start on its negative rant it just does this. Don’t take my word for it. Just think about where your mind goes when you let it wander…

The coffee is lousy.

I hate this weather!

Why do I have to stand in this line?

Who does that guy think he is?

Everyone is ruining my day!

You know what I’m talking about, yes? It happens to all of us. And scientists don’t know why our brain does this. But when we are not aware or focused we can get lost in thoughts that do not serve us. That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: awareness stops the default brain. One conscious breath helps stop the default brain.

Pause for a minute and simply feel the breath enter and leave your body. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. It’s that easy and you’re breathing anyway so pausing and taking a conscious breath is no sweat. Try it now.

When you take a conscious breath you may notice that you feel more grounded in your body and that your mind is quiet, even if it is just for this moment. You are allowing yourself to be here now. In the present moment you feel grounded and more alive. Plus, conscious breathing pauses your default brain and in that pause, you have a choice. You can decide what kind of thoughts if any you are going to have. Our default brain is not our authentic self; it’s just a mental construct. It’s not even our fault; it’s just something our brain does when it’s not focused!

Wild, right?

So when you catch yourself in your default brain you can breathe and that snaps you back into the present moment. There you can focus on what’s really happening.

In those moments when you need to show up, you can take a breath and regain control of your mind. Like when you need to be strategic, or have clarity about a decision, when you are leading others, and when you need to connect, at these times you want to show up and conscious breathing can help.

It is a habit that is worth developing and it begins by becoming aware of when you are lost in your default brain. Then, simply pause and breath, it can make all the difference.






Working with Robin Williams

35mm-005 - Version 2I’ll never forget the night that Robin Williams walked into our theater at Chicago City Limits and asked us if he could perform with us. It was in 1983 when he was in New York City shooting Moscow on the Hudson. As you might imagine, we were surprised and thrilled. We were just getting ready to begin our Saturday night show. We had recently gotten some good reviews and the house was packed.

Robin came backstage with us as we quickly changed the running order of the show to accommodate him and his amazing skills. He loved the idea of improvising a Shakespearean play so we did a Shakespearean “Caller’s Option.” A caller’s option is a scenic game where a cast member (the caller) stands on the side and every once in a while freezes the action and asks the audience how to continue. Unbilled and unannounced, Robin was going to make his initial entrance in a Shakespearean caller’s option.

The caller got the suggestion of a song title from the audience and a cast member entered and began a Shakespearean soliloquy using that title. The job of that first cast member is to set up a Shakespearean story: the king is in trouble and I must help him or I want the throne and I am out to destroy the king – that kind of thing. The caller then freezes that action and tells the audience that the king is going to enter with news and asks what is that news? The audience supplies the news. That is when Robin made his entrance as the king.

It took the audience a few seconds to realize just who the king was. You could hear a surprise gasp starting in the front of the audience and working its way to the back. Then came the applause.

Robin was a great improvisers and he did the whole show with us improvising in scenes, songs, and stories. He was a whiz at foreign language “gibberish” and he would improvise a poem in gibberish and one of the cast members would translate. He did a conducted story with us. He did a “first line/last line” scene. It was a magical night.

And it was just the first. Robin came back every weekend. He would come on a Friday night or a Saturday night and sometimes both nights. On stage he was on fire. Off stage he was soft-spoken, almost shy. I remember him as being kind and generous. We would sit backstage and talk about life and comedy.

When I heard the sad news about his death I was shocked. Even though it had been many years since I had seen Robin I felt in some way like he was a friend. I cared what happened to him and always wished him the best. I guess that was because he had given us such a gift with his talent and generous performances on our stage. I remember his manic stage presence and his shy offstage personality. I wondered if he was unable to ever comfortably merge the two. I have heard rumors that he was bipolar but I do not know if this is the case. I only know that all of us were unable to love him enough, that, in spite of fame and fortune, he must have felt very much alone, and that makes me sad. Still, he left us with a tremendous gift – his talent and his life! How he made us laugh and what that act of generosity cost him.


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The Book is Here!

Good News!

After promising to write a book about improvisation for years, I finally did it. The book, “A Doctor and a Plumber in a Rowboat: The Essential Guide to Improvisation” is a work of love. I coauthored it with my long time friend and colleague, Tom Soter. The book shares the essentials for performing and teaching good improv, but it’s about more that that. In it we explore the life lessons that improv teaches, we talk about how we can all learn to be more creative and spontaneous, and share how the principles of improv can improve  your writing and presentation style. There are also plenty of photos of improv groups and quotes about improv from well-known artists.

I will take the next 30 days to, as one friend put it, “bask in the ‘just finished my book’ glow” and then I will start preparing my next book which will be a book devoted more specifically to improv and business. At least that is what I am thinking now, as 2014 turns into 2015 I reserve the right to change my mind. Who knows, perhaps there is a fantasy novel waiting to appear?

The book is now available at Amazon.

Endless Possibilities: It’s all right here

I tell new improvisers they all ready have everything they need to be a good improviser. They never believe me. They always think they have to be quick and clever when all they need to do is be what they are – human.  And so far, all of my students have fit that category.  Well, there was that one…

Life has provided us with a great body and five senses that help us to navigate every moment. If we paid attention to what is happening in the moment we would never have to worry about what to do or say next. That being said, very few of us trust that this is true. Improvisation gives us the opportunity to discover this truth for ourselves. Time and time again we are given situations or topics that we must respond to and we discover that we can!

In my corporate work I use improv exercises to help clients relax and discover the depth of information available to them in the present moment. Truth be told, you really can’t be anywhere else. However, when we get stuck thinking and forget to breathe, we end up losing our powers of observation and we miss what is actually happening right in front of us. This is something we’ve all experienced one way or another:

You’re thinking of an answer and don’t hear what’s being said.

You’re remembering a conversation and you misplace your car keys.

You’re planning your next move and miss vital information.

Improv exercises help us to rediscover that we can operate more efficiently and effectively if we are not overthinking, but instead, being (seeing, feeling, listening) with what is happening.

Improvisation teaches us to pause and breathe before responding, to take in what is happening, and only then, to respond. You observe, listen, and allow yourself the luxury of seeing what is happening in that moment. So it’s not thinking, but rather observing that makes all the difference.  In fact, truth be told, improvisation is not about thinking at all. It’s more about seeing, listening and responding.

For those of you who are nonbelievers, think about it. (Yes, I realize what I just said.) Think about the last time you were in the zone and lost time. Think about that presentation that spoke itself. Think about that answer you came up with that just came to you. That’s what I’m talking about. In those circumstances you were not thinking and yet you were very present.  Improv helps us to exercise that muscle so that the present moment is more available to us or I should say, so that we are more available to the present moment.

Endless Possibilities:

How I learned everything from Improv

People either enjoy improv or it makes them nervous.

Those who enjoy it love the thrill of watching performers work without a net and the excitement of magic happening right before their eyes. Those who do not enjoy improv usually feel that way because, in my humble opinion, they most likely have never experienced really good improv; because really good improv is spontaneous, captivating, amazing, and usually hilarious. There came a moment in my long career as an improviser when it occurred to me that this is what life is supposed to be like also.

Truth be told, I had that thought early in my career, however I did not have a clue as to how to take the rules of improv and apply them to my ‘real’ life. What I was willing to do on stage, I was not willing to do on the stage of life.  So I slogged through my life, refusing to be in the moment, resisting life as it was unfolding and making the same mistakes over and over again.

Oddly enough, it was only after I had stopped performing and began using my improvising skills to help others that I realized the real gift that improvisation had given me – it taught me how to live. Life at its best is spontaneous, captivating, amazing, and hilarious. It is filled with endless possibilities; our first job is to learn to see them.

Endless Possibilities: How I learned everything from Improv is the new theme of this blog. I’ll be sharing with you insights and lessons from my many years loving, performing, and teaching improvisation. You’ll discover how, with a little more awareness, you can learn to trust your instincts, listen with your whole body, open to your creative self, build on the ideas of others, and have more fun. And of course, I’ll be sharing how all this has business applications as well.

So enjoy!  And email me your thoughts.

Pay It Forward

I recently received a tremendous gift, something that would be impossible to repay in kind. It was an act of great generosity and I wanted, somehow, to do something for this person that would be helpful and meaningful in return. So I asked him how I could pay him back, and he said, “Please don’t pay me back, pay it forward.”
Pay it forward. I had heard this expression before. It was the title of a movie. And oddly enough, it happened to be playing on HBO shortly after I spoke with my friend.
In the movie, Kevin Spacey plays a social studies teacher who gives his seventh grade class an assignment: Think of an idea to change the world and put it into action.
Haley Joel Osment plays a 12-year-old student in Spacey’s class who comes up with an amazing idea: He’s going to choose three people and do something for them. He tells the class that “it has to be something really big, something they can’t do by themselves.” In turn, they must find three other people and do the same thing, three big favors for three other people, and so on and so on, changing the world by the power of three. That’s how it begins, this boy finds three people who need something they cannot give themselves, and soon, pay it forward begins to spread like a virus.
Now I have been asked to do my part, to pay it forward.
I do plenty of favors for friends and family. But this is something different. Pay it forward is not asking me to do something nice for Aunt Susie. Pay it Forward is asking me to pay attention. It is asking me to become more aware of people and their needs. It is a different sensibility, a reaching out where, before, I might have just turned away. As a result, I find myself sensitized to the needs of others in a new way.
I must admit, I did not expect this result. When I first heard my friend say, “pay it forward,” I thought it would be easy. Not that it’s difficult, but it is a change, or perhaps a better word is shift, in how I use my energy. Now, I’m outer focused instead of inner focused, and while you might think this is a burden, I find it a relief from the endless attention I pay to myself.
I’m also discovering that it’s not a bad way to live. I’ll keep you posted on my progress with what I’m calling this new kind of walking in service. Frankly, I am not very good at it–yet.
Please share your own paying it forward experiences. Your stories would be helpful and interesting to me and to others who read this blog.

Looking For the Humor

Years ago, too many for me to comfortably tell you, I studied at Second City in Chicago with Del Close. Del was the master!  We were his students and we hung on every word that came out of his mouth… or most of them. He was struggling at the time with substance abuse and there were moments when we had no idea what the heck he was talking about. It did not matter to us, we listened knowing that bits of his genius would come through at points in his rants and we did not want to miss them.

It was from Del and later from George Todisco, the visionary that founded Chicago City Limits, that I learned the wonders of improvisation. Creating something from nothing is a high better than any substance can bring. Continue reading

Got My Mojo Working

This is how Wikipedia defines mojo:
“Mojo refers to a magical charm bag used in hoodoo, and in modern usage may also refer to sexual potency.”

Welcome to my blog. Today I am discussing mojo. My definition is broader than Wikipedia’s. I define mojo as our urge to create and be innovative. It is that spark that makes us vibrant, that charm that makes us appealing – call it charisma, call it presence, call it dynamic it makes us sparkle, smart, exciting and desirable. When our mojo is in swing, we are smokin’. And when it is not, we’re average. You may even say boring. So when I talk about mojo, I’m talking about the charm of life itself. Continue reading