Jump & Justify - Dang! Things weren't supposed to go like that. (Part 2 )
What improv can teach us about maintaining resilience and flexibility when important communication goes sideways.
This essay is Part Two in a series on what to do when your communication goes sideways. For the month of March we’re exploring lessons from the world of improvisational theatre that can help you to be more flexible and resilient when faced with the unexpected. You can read part one on adopting an Improv Ethos here.
Speaking of the unexpected, you can read my short tribute to improv legend Keith Johnstone, who passed away a few days ago, here.
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Let’s start with a story:
Last year I was building out the content for a rollout of online workshops. To enrich the experiential content, the client asked to include a few video segments created by a subject matter expert that they really loved. So we met, I explained to him what I was looking for and we agreed on a deadline for when he would send the assets to me.
On the day of our agreed deadline, instead of receiving the completed assets, I received over 50 rough cut ideas he’d recorded to video. I sent an email explaining that I would not have time to watch all 50 possibilities, nor did I have the expertise to vet them. I would need him to make choices based on his experience and credentials, and send me the three completed videos I had requested.
We met multiple times, communicated over email a half dozen times, and each time I thought my request was crystal clear because he sounded so confident, “I’m on it!” I even recorded one of our zoom conversations and sent him a copy, so that he could use it for reference if needed! (Maybe not my proudest moment, but he said thank you and told me it was useful… his results told me it was not.)
With the rollout launch looming, the more I wanted him to just get the videos done, the more he wanted to get them right. More than he wanted to just give me three completed videos, he wanted them to be perfect.
Since firing him wasn’t an option, I had to try something completely different… not just a bigger, or more specific version of what I had already tried. So I paused, I breathed, and I asked myself “what’s the offer here?"
That’s when I realized that me not getting what I needed meant he wasn’t getting what he needed either. It didn’t matter how precise I judged my own communication, it only mattered that we understand each other.
So I stopped telling him my needs and asked about his:
Hey Barthollomeow (not his real name)
It seems like me saying "Can I have a video that explains x" isn't a great system for you. Help me understand what would be better. Can you give me a sense of what an ideal process, and a realistic process, might be from your standpoint given our timelines?
He sent me an email response that outlined what he wished he was getting from me, and while most of it was stuff I could not provide, we did come to a surprisingly fast consensus (information is power!), and he sent me what I needed literally the next day.
I learned two valuable lessons from this experience:
If I had started our communication by asking about his process instead of assuming it was what I had been told: “ask him to make what you need, and he will,” I would have saved both of us an immense amount of time and stress. (It’s always great to learn something you can use moving forward!)
Just like my dad has told me over and over, if what you’re doing isn’t working, its time to try something else. In improv we call moving to something new, making a jump. I’m so glad I did!
Just like speaking louder and slower to someone who doesn’t speak your language doesn’t suddenly help them understand you, doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result is a recipe for driving you and the person you are talking to straight up a wall!
Why am I sharing this story? Because it serves as a real world example of how when our communication begins to take a left turn from what we think should be happening it’s useful to have tools and tactics to draw from.
“If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else”
What can improv teach us about flexibility, resilience, and how we might handle things a little better when they do not go our way?
In part one of this essay series we explored the improv ethos. A lens guided by these principles: play the scene you’re in (not the scene you wish you were in), see everything as an offer (meaning something one can play with), and be changed (carry a willingness to demonstrate how your scene partner’s choice affects you).
In this essay I’m adding a couple of ways we can think more tactically about being changed by the offers on the table: Jump & Justify. Truth be told these two tactics are flip sides of the same coin, mirror universe options to each other, and both open up possibilities in how we behave and speak with each other.
The Circle of Expectations (AKA The Circle of Possibilities)
Let’s talk a little bit about expectations, the playing field of possibility within which the concepts of jump and justify reside.
As my dad has often said to me “expectations are a great way to make sure you experience disappointment,” which can certainly be true. When life, love, your management or waitress fail to meet your expectations there is inevitable disappointment that follows. But of course when something meets or exceeds our expectations we really, really like it!
The plain and simple of it all: expectations, we have them; and at times they define what we believe is and isn’t possible. So, understanding tactics to shift our own perspective (and maybe that of the people we interact with) can be really powerful where it comes to the flexibility of our thinking and ability to pivot in our communication. Viewing our expectations, and those of the people around us, as a moving boundary can open up new possibilities in how we behave and talk with one another.
How improvisers talk about expectations
In improv we define the circle of expectations as an expanding and contracting boundary that helps us define the universe or story we are creating for ourselves and our audience.
In general improvisers are encouraged to make simple, honest, obvious choices as players, which means that when a circle is particularly narrow it can feel quite comfortable to play. This is because choices are easier to make within a narrow set of possibilities.
Wider circles on the other hand hold a lot more possibility, so in some ways it can feel more daunting to choose how to proceed. How narrow or how wide a scene feels is defined by the offers that have been made.
When we talk about expectations with this context in mind they include 1) what our scene partner expects us to do or say 2) what we expect our partners to do or say and 3) what the audience expects to happen next. It only takes a couple of offers before everyones brains start constructing possible or likely story outcomes.
Notice what happens to your own storytelling brain when you look at this wide vs narrow circle example.
Now with a little understanding of what happens with expectations based on this model, we can play with both the expected and unexpected.
When a scene begins to feel boring, or stuck and un-fun, we can choose to expand the circle with a jump, by making an offer that feels outside of what is expected. To contract the circle again all we must do is justify the jump with some context that pulls it inside our made-up universe.
Jump is how we take risks to leap to something unexpected.
Justify is how we logic our way back to safety.
As with most things in life, a little goes a long way with both. If you’ve ever seen an improv show that felt bonkers and was incredibly hard to track, the players may have been giving you too much jump without enough justify. On the flip side, if you suffered through an incredibly uninteresting improv show the players were probably playing it safe with too much justify, and not enough risk.
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Applying this idea to the real world:
Improvisers love the feeling of jumping to unexpected places in our made up worlds. Sometimes what improvisers need to strengthen is actually the justify half of the equation, making obvious simple choices instead of swinging out to left field. Conversely in the real world our justify muscles can sometimes work on overdrive leading us to feel trapped in situations where we would be well served to jump!
This makes sense of course! In an improv show the stakes are low and the biggest risk you take is sounding foolish… and then oh well! The shows over, and its all in the past. In the real world, jumping comes with real risk! Luckily the real world offers us a few more minutes to breathe and think than an improv stage gives us… which means sometimes you can look before you leap.
The best way to identify where, when and how to jump is really to practice getting curious about you think is true, and what else might be. By paying attention to limiting assumptions and allowing yourself a few minutes to explore outside of the expected in your mind palace, you can open up all kinds of possibilities.
You may recall the frustration felt by Managing Director Daniel, in part 1 of this series, when learning that they’d be taking a pay cut instead of receiving a bump in salary and a bonus.
With the offers on the table (the conversation had between Daniel and his boss), it would be reasonable to assume that this frustrating outcome was a done deal. But Daniel actually took a moment to acknowledge all of the offers on the table, including his gut instinct which told him that this outcome was wrong.
That’s when he jumped outside the circle of expectations.
“I thought, ‘this feels like a mistake… what if it is one?’
So I called a follow up meeting with my manager and HR, and suggested that I thought there had been a simple clerical error and why. They agreed to look into it, and you know what? IT WAS!
Initially I had assumed that the decision was personal which really hurt. When I realized that there could be a number of other explanations, that was the big unlock. I decided to assume something much more helpful, and that ended up being the truth in the end. What a relief!”
Wrapping this up
Here’s the bottom line from my point of view: when communication takes an unexpected turn you always have a choice:
You can stick with what hasn’t worked so far and pray for a different result (probability of getting what you want here is super low).
You can vote with your feet and simply give up (bummer though, right?!).
Or, if what you’re doing isn’t working you can take a deep breath, get curious about your own assumptions, and try something new.
I want to hear your point of view! Leave a comment or share a story in the chat! Which is easier for you naturally jump or justify?
The next essay in this series is about what happens when the show ends or when the moment has passed - Part 3: Learn & Let go.