I wasn’t used to speaking my mind so freely; I wasn’t sure how to do so, and the impostor syndrome made it even harder.

Being “more vocal” was listed as an area of improvement in my first performance review at Dropbox. My manager shared that our team could have been more aligned if my energy had been higher in the room. To become a better collaborator, I decided to try the least-prescriptive method available—improvisation classes.

By doing improv exercises and studying improv frameworks, I learned to be more comfortable with being in the spotlight. I became more adaptable and much more vocal when it came to discussions with cross-functional stakeholders. I just felt more comfortable being my full self at work and voicing my opinions—which helped our team collaborate and made the work better.

Flash-forward six months. With several months of improv training under my belt, there was a significant improvement from my previous performance review. In this feedback cycle, my high energy and collaborative approach to cross-functional partnerships were noted as strengths in my peer feedback. Leaning into improv helped me turn a learning opportunity into a newfound strength.

If you’re looking for ways to improve how you collaborate, ways to be bolder, or ways to be more creative, then this is the article for you. I’d love to share the lessons I learned from improv that helped me improve my design career.

Build team dialogue by making inviting and contextual statements

In improv, there is no script. The actors and actresses need to work together to build context as they go. The more context they give each other, the easier it is to create a scene. For example, an actor might say, “Wow! I can’t believe we’re here for our sister’s wedding at this beach in Hawaii!” It’s now clear to the other actor or actress what the scene’s purpose is without them having to guess. This makes it easier for the other person to dive deeper into the context that has been established. This is an example of a strong “offer,” which is the building block of interactions between two or more people. Offers can be given or received, and they can be in the form of gestures or verbal statements.

Similar to improv, there is no script between you and your cross-functional partners at work. You both need to work together to create dialogue to uncover context, seek out edge cases, or align on user and business problems. The more quickly you can provide well-rounded context, the faster you can create quality dialogue between you and your partners.

For example, if your product manager requests that you improve a commenting workflow so that more comments can be created, you should take it as a signal to dig deeper, rather than agree right away. Maybe ask what is the greater problem they are trying to solve for and have they looked at other impacted metrics. Solving for the commenting flow might not be the priority that improves user retention for a set of users, if that’s the business goal; it might be something else. Getting the dialogue going will help you figure out if you’re solving the right set of problems.

You’ll find that the more dialogue you have with your partners, the more confident you’ll become because you’re sharing more. You are uncovering more evidence. You are building more context. You’ll be able to defend your points of view.

You won’t always agree with your peers, but there’s a way to make it feel like the script is moving forward rather than backward or stalling out.

Build the energy by sparking positivity

Have you ever presented an idea, only to see it get shut down? I have, and it sometimes made me feel a bit more anxious about sharing more ideas. But there’s a way to brainstorm and still feel productive.

In improv, we practice making positive offers by doing an exercise with variations of “Yes, and” and “No, but.” When an offer is made and we receive a “Yes, and [insert proposal]” in return, it feels empowering. It feels exciting. However, if the response is “No, but [insert statement of rejection],” it’s saddening. It feels like your offer has been countered.

Here’s an example of a positive design critique with a “Yes, and” framework:

  • Jill: I added this button here so I could drive a higher click-through rate.
  • Jack: Yes, and we should make it bolder so people will notice it!
  • Jill: Yes, and I think a dark blue would help make it bolder!
  • Jack: Yes, and putting it in the center will help drive the click-through rate.

With the “Yes, and“ framework, each statement builds on the last. These are positive offers spark creativity because it’s encouraging. It’s easier to be creative and confident in yourself when you feel enabled and in sync with your partner.

Here’s an example of a negative design critique with a “No, but” framework:

  • Jill: I added this button here so I could drive a higher click-through rate.
  • Jack: No, but I don’t think that will drive the click-through rate.
  • Jill: Should I make the button color bolder?
  • Jack: No, but maybe it should be yellow.

In this situation, Jack’s points might be valid, but they don’t feel positive. We won’t always agree with our peers, and there will be tons of solutions that aren’t the most optimal. So how do we reject ideas more constructively?

Here’s an example of saying "no, but" in a much more positive way that feels forward-moving:

  • Jill: I added this button here to drive a higher click-through rate.
  • Jack: Yes, it looks like your intention is to drive revenue by including this button. You might be able to accomplish that more if you give the button a bolder treatment.
  • Jill: Yes, I see that a bolder treatment would make it more apparent. Another idea would be to use a dark blue color so it pops out on the screen.
  • Jack: Yes, the dark color will make it more apparent. The button might be even more noticeable if we place it above the fold.

Here, there’s no use of the word “but.” While it might be unrealistic to never use that word, it’s more positive to recognize someone’s intention behind a design and to build ideas around that. Even if it’s not the right execution, recognizing the intention makes people feel like they are being heard rather than rejected. Design reviews don’t have to be scary or make designers feel defensive. Having a “Yes, and” mindset fosters a positive culture, energetic teamwork, creative ideas, and a safe space for yourself and others.

And that’s a wrap!

You’ve seen how to build dialogue without a script, and you’ve learned how to ignite a positive culture for your team with a “Yes, and” mindset. These will help you be not only a better collaborator, but also a more confident person.

Improv is more than just creating a script on the fly. It’s collaborative storytelling, much like how we create stories through the products we design. We’re nothing without the people we design with as a team, so if you can bring these behaviors into your own practice, you might soon notice an improvement in relationships, communication, and the end result.

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