Improvised Discounts and the Art of Communicating
I was talking on the phone with an important client yesterday evening. We were planning to meet up. I was enthusiastic about this, and said, “that’ll be brilliant!” He said, “It’ll be good, I’m not sure about ‘brilliant’.”
He wasn’t being cute of funny. He was just being himself.
It reminded me, usefully, of one of the Golden Rules of Impro (‘Improv’ or ‘improvisational theatre’). In Impro (as in the game show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), one of the key principles is the win-win of building on a colleague’s suggestion. So if a colleague improvises and says, “I see you have a wooden leg” – the idea is to develop the theme. The next character might say, “And I’m terrified by the way you remind me of a woodpecker – get away from my leg!” An inexperienced impro artist will often panic and negate a line fed to them. In our story above, they might say, “No, I think you’ll find I have a normal leg…” What does the first actor do now? If they are brilliant, they’ll recover and add something Pythonesque such as, “I’m sorry, I have a cold!” but many people will let the connection die.
Communication Professionals call this negative barrier an ‘empathy blocker’.
It blocks empathy.
Blocks the flow of the conversation.
Creates an impasse.
We are not sympatico.
Pacing and Leading
In Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), great emphasis is placed on ‘pacing’ then ‘leading’. This is the opposite of an empathy blocker’s behaviour. We ‘pace’ a person – matching not just their speed but also their frame-of-reference, choice of tone, language, and volume. Then, when we believe ‘rapport’ has been achieved (we are sympatico), the partner in the dance of communication takes the lead. If the other follows, the dance continues. This ebb and flow, this give and take, I call “The Estuary of Conversation”.
My client is normal. The normal way to communicate is for people to hold fast to their own world-view and decline the invitation to dance. This is as thrilling for the other party as having their card declined at the checkout… with a queue of people watching! A lot of opportunities to dance are missed.
In this sense, any conversation is a series of transactions. When we fail to pace and lead, we decline the transaction. The conversation fails. It skids to a halt. Rapport is broken, like some strange chemical bond being broken, and you chemists know what happens next… a reaction!
Most people, when their transaction has been blocked, go quiet. That’s pretty sensible. When you’re ready though, you will learn the power of returning to pacing. You will be the experienced Impro Actor. When the apprentice stumbles, you must masterfully and graciously pick up their pace again and go with their flow. “I’m sorry, I have a cold…”
This is going to happen to you.
So let’s get ready for it. Realise that it actually is a well-developed improvisational skill: improvised discounting! Discounting is the habit of rendering someone else’s point-of-view of lower value than they hold it to be worth – a discount. Many discounts are actually dismissive of the total value, but everyday conversations are full of little put-downs, empathy blockers, and discounts. A discount devalues the relationship. This is occasionally deliberate (where someone is being spiteful or jealous) but it is usually totalling innocent and beyond the awareness of the offending party.
We can move from an ‘improvised discount’ to an ‘improvised bargain’. ‘Bargain’ is a strange word – meaning to ‘bar’ ‘gain’ – to forbid or block anyone gaining. In this sense, it is not a word I like. I do, however, like what it has come to mean in everyday speech. It means win-win. Neither party wins to the detriment of the other.
It is fair.
It is just.
It is Impro!
With an ‘improvised bargain’ of a conversation, the transactions are equal and flowing. Each listens, acknowledges, reflects, and builds on the other’s contributions…
…and a simple way to do this is to swap out the word ‘but’ for the phrase ‘and so’ (or just ‘and’ where more appropriate.)
And so, back to our actors…
“I see you have a wooden leg…”
“And so I make an excellent Pirate, ahargh!”
With pacing and leading on today’s agenda, I wonder if we can dance from ‘good’ to ‘brilliant’? I’ll let you know.
Can’t wait for the performance!