The other day I was sitting at a very serious coffee spot in San Francisco. The kind of elaborate coffee laboratory where an earnest hipster meticulously crafts me the perfect cup of joe in just under 14 minutes, for only six dollars. I dig those places, as much for the social anthropology as for the coffee itself.
Sitting at the table next to mine were a guy and a girl, each somewhere in their mid-twenties. Their exchange went something like this:
HER: (after reading a text on her phone) Ugh. I called my friend Becky when she didn’t show up at Skylight last night and she said she was tired. She pulls that crap all the time and I’m so over it and over her. I mean, if you don’t want to come out, just say you don’t want to come out but don’t make it about being tired. Isn’t that so annoying?
HER: Becky is just so immature. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. On New Years Eve she was supposed to meet us at Trevor’s house and she didn’t show up until 10:45 and when we asked her why she was late she made up some story about working on her grad school application. Ugh. She’s applying to grad school in public horticulture which makes no sense considering she killed every house plant we ever had when we lived together. I swear she opened the graduate course catalogue and randomly chose public horticulture.. Public horticulture? Isn’t that ridiculous?
HER: Seriously, she has a black thumb. There was this one fern we had in college, and she blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah..kill me now..blah blah blah..look at phone…blah blah blah…
This, umm, conversation(?) went on like that for the better part of an hour. And despite my shmancy noise-canceling headphones, I heard every word.
My inner monologue went something like this:
ME: WTF?!? How can she not notice that he is so completely disengaged?!? Does she not see his blank stare, his slumped body?!? Can’t she hear her own voice, incessantly nattering on? And, WTF?!? How can he be so checked out? Does he not see that he is making her do all the work whole he’s offers nothing? Can’t he see that she’s madly flailing, wanting him to jump in and contribute something, anything??!
I was equal parts obsessed and horrified.
In my mind, I fantasized about doing an Improv Intervention. Time would slow down as I’d dramatically remove my headphones while I magically transformed into a sparkly holographic version of myself on a really good hair day. Energetically I’d be simultaneously channeling the loving kindness of Glinda the Good Witch and the tell-it-like-it-is ferocity of Tyler Perry’s Medea.
I’d turn toward the offending parties, who would gasp at my sparkly visage, and I’d say;
ME: Excuse me. Forgive my interruption but I am an Improv Teacher. It’s my sworn duty to help out in this sort of communication emergency. The wildly disconnected nature of your exchange leaves me no choice but to intervene.
Okay, first things first.
(To Her) Shut your pie hole. Put down your phone. Breathe.
(To Him) Wake the fuck up. Bring your attention back to this moment. Breathe.
(To Both) Take a sip of your $6 coffee and just be with each other in silence.
ME: Okay. For whatever reason, the two of you have chosen to spend this hour of your one precious life being with one another. Whatever brought you together in this moment, (my guess: Tinder), presumably you chose to be here in the hopes of having a mutually-satisfying connection of some kind. And let’s face it, that’s not happening. To the contrary, you, Sister, are rambling. And you, Sir, are checked out.
The fact that you are both bored and frustrated and will not be getting laid is your own problem and not my concern. My intervention is about the communication pollution you are spewing into the shared communication environment. If left unaddressed, you’ll walk away from this exchange in the cloud of toxic disconnectedness you’ve generated, holding your stories about each other as though they are true. You’ll believe that your time together went poorly because she’s a blabbermouth, and you’ll be certain that it’s because he’s a dud. I am here to show you that this profoundly uninspiring experience is not a consequence of the other person’s shortcomings but rather of your shockingly poor communication and connection skills.
So, by the powers vested in me by the Noble Order of Improvisers, I offer you the following Improv tools and practices to create a more connected, authentic and satisfying rapport.
1. Give & Take: Communication is a shared experience. Notice your participation and help maintain a balanced level of contribution.
Are you leaving space for your partner to speak? (Give)
Are you contributing your share to the exchange? (Take)
NOTE: Taking is not selfish. It’s you showing up.
2. Listen to Your Partner: As you speak, always stay aware of your partner.
How are they receiving you?
What are the non-verbal cues he’s giving you?
NOTE: 93% of communication is non-verbal.
3. Listen to Yourself: Notice your own level of engagement.
Are you feeling connected to what you are saying?
Is there anything you can adjust to feel more engaged with what you are saying?
NOTE: Energy is contagious. If you are engaged, your partner will be too.
4. Stay Present: If your mind wanders, simply bring it back to your partner and the moment.
NOTE: The gift of your attention is like MiracleGrow for connection.
5. Be Curious: While listening to your partner, notice where your attention goes. What do you find yourself wanting to know more about?
NOTE: Boredom is a lack of attention.
At that point in my fantasy, I magically fade back into regular, non-holographic me and back to face my computer as though nothing happened. The guy and the girl hold eye contact for a moment before simultaneously awakening to the present moment.
HER: Umm.. Sorry, I forgot what I was saying..
HIM: Oh, umm, you were talking about your friend going to graduate school in something she’s not actually interested in. I did that too.
HER: You did? What did you study?
HIM: Sociology of Fonts. My Dad is a typographer and I wanted to please him.
HER: Oh, I so get that! I do that with my mom all the time. Did it work? Was he pleased?
HIM: Yeah, my Dad has my diploma hung up over his work bench, he loves it. And whenever I’m home we talk for hours about serifs and hanging indents..
And there I’d sit, basking in the sweetness of their connected, curious, shared human exchange.. witnessing their deep fulfillment from each feeling seen and heard, each open to learning more about themselves and the world through their fully-engaged communication.
Ahh..that feels much better.