Building Your Social Skills with Improv

Small talk sucks.

I’m not even joking, and I know a lot of you reading are saying YES I KNOW, and then immediately thinking, “But don’t you…like conversations?”

Yes, I love conversations! And yes, I hate awkward, superficial small talk. 

Both are true and it’s ok! It’s surprising to me whenever I pop on my “Introverted, but willing to discuss plants” shirt that people don’t believe that both are true for me. Here’s the big secret though: small talk doesn’t have to be superficial. You can replace it with meaningful conversations that are fun and full of curiosity.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we start talking about all our hopes and dreams with someone you meet at a networking event, or your deepest fears with someone you just met on your first date. If that’s what you want then rock it out, I play things a bit closer to the chest. What I am suggesting is to replace that awkward feeling of not understanding how to “people” in a group, those social skills that need to be upped, with simple techniques from improv.

Awkward moment one: don’t know what to say.

Ah, one of my favorites. You’re going along in conversation, listening to the other person, doing your job and being more social, and suddenly, the conversation is at a dead stop. You have no idea what to say next, there’s a silence, and then oh no can they hear you panicking? If you listen hard enough you can surely hear them panicking. What are we going to do?

First, take a breath. No one wants your anxiety, not even you. You have a few choices, and one is something I tell folks to avoid as a crutch in improv: ask a question.

This isn’t about just any question – a lot of time in improv, nervous folks will ask wide open questions that just result in the other person doing all the work. I still remember the scene when a friend of mine and I were messing with the other person – he handed me a box and said, “Open it!” and I did – and then he said, “go, take it out, do you like it?”

What. Is. It?!

He left all the choice up to me! I had to decide what it was, based on the size, and then if it was a good gift or not! If we weren’t friends, I would be upset. A better use of this would be, “Open it!” then, “I know chocolate is your favorite, do you like it?” He’s given me something to hold on to, something to go from – I could go anywhere with chocolate – the snack, the color – but he’s given me something to hold on to because too much creativity is just as bad as not enough.

Next time you get that awkward moment of, “Ah! What next?!” You can ask a question about something you’ve already been talking about – or – something that you both can see or know about. You’ve given that person something to grab on to, so they can connect and move forward with the conversation.

Awkward moment two: you said too much.

Been there, done that, remove your foot and shame and look around: we’ve all done it. That terrible moment when you know that you’ve said way too much and either the other person is embarrassed or you are. And unfortunately, you can’t unring a bell, because it’s already out there.

Again, take a breath – this isn’t just to center you back and calm you down, this is to give yourself a beat to think about your next step. Are you embarrassed? Well, change the subject. As obvious as the subject change is, it’s better to move along before you wallow in the subject. Is it the other person that is embarrassed? Tap the confidence transparency in improv: you don’t just talk about something, you do it. Say you’re sorry for making things uncomfortable and then change the subject. Move along, because the longer you sit in this discomfort, the worse it gets.

Awkward moment three: how do you introduce yourself.

Real talk, can you pick up three balls and start to juggle right now? Or hop on a unicycle and ride circles around me if I just hand you one?

Of course not.

Why do we think that we can just immediately do something when it comes to speaking and communication, and yet we view things like juggling and unicycling as skills? 

They all take time to hone and understand. Looking to introduce yourself? Practice! Say out loud, “Hi my name is Jen, nice to meet you. What’s your name?” If it’s a networking situation, you can think about who the audience is and what that means for your introduction. Quick tip, because networking is slightly different than introducing yourself anywhere else in the world, except for dating, I think: make what you do as simple as possible, and present it as a problem that’s being solved for extra impact. For me that “what do you do” answer is now: “You know how people get nervous talking, listening and presenting? I help them get better at communication through improv.” Boom.

Awkward moment four: you weren’t listening.

This one has the possibility of being mortifying: remember in school when we weren’t listening and a teacher called us out on not listening? I sure do: and this feels oddly worse. If you aren’t listening, you’re either going to fake it, and act as you heard (obvious faking is obvious, folks) or, transparently say you aren’t.

In improv, you KNOW when people aren’t listening. I tell this story often, and it fits here. I was working with an engineering firm and two of the employees got up to do an activity that worked their listening skills. One was a woman, and she started dancing and said “Dad, do you think I can be on American Bandstand?” and the other person, a man, said “Yeah yeah.” Near the end of the moment, he looks over at her and says, “This is the weirdest strip club I’ve ever been in.”

COLLECTIVE GASP.

He wasn’t listening – and just kept going like he was! He missed vital information, and because it was a professional development workshop, we all saw it…which is better or worse than just one person thinking you’re a terrible listener? (I don’t know!)

Get caught not listening? No worries, say, “Hey, I wasn’t listening and got distracted. Can you repeat what you just said?” Be honest, be upfront and be real – it’s a much better outcome than the other option.

Got an awkward social moment you want us to work through with improv? Send us an email at jen@theengagingeducator.com and we’ll feature it on the blog!

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