Learning to Listen
Lawyers sometimes have a listening problem. Too often, we think our job is to be the smartest person in the room, to show off how brilliant we are, to project confidence that we have all the answers, and to never admit to ignorance, doubt, or error. Law school rarely teaches attorneys how to be good listeners. Improv does.
The lessons taught by The Second City inspired the book Yes, And by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton. The authors describe how improv embraces the notion of responding to a person or situation with “yes, and” instead of jumping to “no, but”—a response known all too well by many attorneys. They explain, “[d]eep listening is essential to improvisation,” and that “the care and feeding of our listening muscle is an absolute priority for anyone who wishes to create, communicate, lead, or manage effectively.”
Sadly, most attorneys and people outside the law are not good listeners. The Yes, And authors lament this saying, “[m]any of us believe that we are good listeners, but there is a huge difference between listening to understand and listening while waiting for the chance to respond. . . . Unfortunately, most of the world operates in the listening to respond mode.” So, improv training focuses on enhancing a player’s listening skills to understand, not just waiting on your feet to jump at the chance to respond.
A second benefit of improv is learning to redirect your attention away from yourself and onto another. The Yes, And authors explain that “[w]hen you’re concentrating hard and fully present in the moment, there’s no room for self-consciousness or shaky nerves.” In the legal profession, the best lawyers are fully present and focused on someone else. Whether it be the client, the judge, the witness, the adversary, or their teammates, their focus is always on someone else, not on themselves.
Admittedly, when you are a new lawyer experiencing a steep learning curve, it is common to be self-conscious. You may have a heightened sense of self-awareness for fear of failure or missteps while building your brand and reputation. For young lawyers carrying this burden, it is hard to listen and even harder to focus on someone other than yourself and your work. However, improv gives you the experience of truly being in the moment. Appreciating and becoming comfortable with being in the moment can serve as a model lawyers can aspire to at work.
Comfortable with Collaboration
Improv is also about building effective teams through collaboration. The best lawyering happens when each team member commits fully to the task. That means everyone is sharing their questions, insights, and creative ideas. Unfortunately, our legal culture is usually hierarchical and inhibits such collaborative freedom. Our culture historically rewarded the smartest person in the room, who is typically wary of challengers. Hence, the law became a deeply competitive industry.
Improv teaches you how to work collaboratively. The engine for this synergy is the concept of Yes, And, which allows actors on stage, with no script, to offer an idea that others then affirm and build onto each time. Actors sharing the scene are responsible for adding something new to the previous idea, reinforcing the need for collaboration. This process of affirmation and addition could benefit teams in the legal world and allow all team members to contribute their ideas and insights.
More Than Just Professional Improvement
The concept of “yes, and” is a powerful tool for legal brainstorming and team engagement, especially for young lawyers learning how to practice the law now that they are officially “on the stage.” The skills gained through improve transcend the legal profession. Everyone, not just young lawyers, can continually improve their listening skills, overcoming self-consciousness and increasing collaboration. Still, for attorneys who seek the added edge that comes from improv training, there is the bonus fact that, at its core, improv is fun and funny. The life of the young lawyer is stressful, and often, work-life balance seems to be an unattainable goal ever slipping away. Attending improv training is a healthy way to get out of the office (or out of your home), say “yes, and” to your partner, and laugh.