How I found myself in an improv class, I’m not really sure. I was at a writing conference outside of Chicago and out of haste picked the first optional class I laid eyes on. I wasn’t prepared to spontaneously perform in front of strangers, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to walk out of there a better girlfriend.
Our instructor was Tripp Crosby, a comedian and film director who is most widely known for his viral YouTube videos and stand-up comedy routines. Tripp taught us some intro-level rules to improv comedy and then walked us through some exercises to practice each rule. Thankfully I stopped panicking long enough to actually listen to what he had to say.
It turns out that improv comedy and relationships have a lot in common. You see, both involve a partnership where two people are willing to commit, communicate, and work together to move forward. Plus, both improv and relationships aren’t scripted, and they’re incredibly unpredictable.
In the daily ins and outs of being in a committed relationship, caring for and communicating with one another—as if the show depended on it—tends to fall by the wayside. So, I decided to take two basic principles from improv class and apply them to my relationship. Here is what I learned.
Nothing Before the ‘Yes-And’
As much as I hate to admit it, listening to my boyfriend has never been my forte. When we first started dating, I was so worried about awkward silences or sounding like a fool that I didn’t take the time to fully hear him out. Even now, in heated debates or lively conversation I find that I often hastily brush past what my boyfriend is trying to convey because I'm eager to share my own ideas.
Needless to say, this habit made me a pretty horrible listener and not that great of a girlfriend.
I learned in my improv class that the best way to move the scene forward and keep everyone on the same page is to apply the “yes-and” principle. Yes-and is an improv comedy rule of thumb. Because there isn’t a script to follow, everything happens on the fly. Basically, you listen to your partner and agree to where he or she decides to take the scene. After you’ve fully committed with your “yes,” then and only then can you add to the action. For instance one partner might say, “We’re taking a trip,” to which the other partner responds, “Yes, we are taking a trip, and we’re going to the moon.”
After I saw how well yes-and worked for my improv partner and me, two complete strangers trying to communicate, I decided it might work well with my boyfriend. You see, yes-and builds in an opportunity for my partner—or my boyfriend—to feel affirmed and for his perspective to help guide the conversation as I add my own input.
For example, the other day my guy was pretty frustrated after having a bad day at work. He finished describing his day by saying, “It was difficult working with him, and I’m not sure what to do next.” I tend to want to fix things and offer solutions, but yes-and taught me how to hold the space in that moment. Instead, I responded with, “Yeah, that’s a really difficult situation, and I think given some time you’ll come to a solution you feel confident about.”
The yes-and improv principle improved our communication dramatically and really took our relationship to the next level. By taking the time to validate the other person’s response before adding information or advancing the conversation, we both felt known and loved. We were able to minimize our miscommunication and increase our ability to empathize with one another in a variety of situations simply because we were fully present.
Always Practice Generous Assumptions
There have been so many times that my unfair assumptions about my boyfriend have led to confusion and hurt feelings. When my boyfriend hurts or disappoints me, my knee-jerk reaction is to assume he did it on purpose.
But, improv taught me that the key to better teamwork—and a happy partnership—is to maintain a rule of generous assumption about the other person.
“Don’t assume the worst about your partner," Crosby explained. "Assume they have the best intentions and they aren’t out to get you or embarrass you. Keep an open mind."
Rather than assuming the worst about my improv partner, we quickly decided to trust that we were both doing the best we could in that moment. Instantly our guard went down, and we were able to be ourselves.
The same proved true in my relationship. When I started applying the principle of generous assumptions with my boyfriend I was able to approach him from a place of trust and understanding. Instead of assuming he was late because I wasn’t a priority, I started entertaining the idea that maybe, just maybe, he was trying the best he could but was late because he had a long day of meetings and his schedule got pushed back.
Dr. Brené Brown, New York Times bestselling author and shame researcher, notes a similar approach. In her book Rising Strong, she says, “I really do believe that most of us are doing the very best we can with the tools we have. I believe we can grow and get better, but I also believe that most of us are really doing our best.”
The hardest part about generous assumptions meant I had to be kind to myself as well. I couldn’t just assume he was doing his best without also assuming the best in myself as well. When I did something wrong my internal monologue needed to shift from “I’m a screwup” to “I screwed up.” Practicing generosity with my boyfriend required me to first practice it with myself.
My accidental improv class taught me that relationships are more about progress and process than perfectionism. My relationship with my boyfriend isn’t scripted, it isn’t perfect, and it’s pretty messy at times. We don’t always get it right, but the good news is that we don’t always have to in order to enjoy each other and our relationship.
Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller