By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation
In Nicholas Epley’s terrific book Mindwise, the distinguished scholar from the University of Chicago sums up his research and analysis in a cogent and vital gift for all leaders of businesses:
“The secret to understanding each other better seems to come not through an increased ability to read body language or improved perspective taking but, rather, through the hard relational work of putting people in a position where they can tell you their minds openly and honestly. Companies truly understand their customers better when they get their perspective directly through conversation, surveys, or face to face interaction, not when executives guess about them in the boardroom.”
Mindwise is about reading minds and bodies and intentions – but it’s mostly about how we misread those minds and bodies and intentions.
Our reliance on stereotypes and our sixth sense – which so richly contributes to our ability to manage everyday interactions – becomes a significant liability when we assume our minds are capturing the truth. We’re likely getting a truth, but the science holds that “cognitive interference” and the “illusion of insight,” is distorting the full picture. In Epley’s book, examples abound: from simple visual tests to extensive surveys to history lessons from war, politics and cultural events.
“There is more to the world than meets your eyes,” notes Epley.
The lesson is deceptively simple: put people in a safe space to speak the truth and then ask them what they think.
Simple, but rare in practice.
One of the reasons we draw on the lessons of improvisation is that its conditions and behaviors so often resemble that of a control group. When our actors are onstage – clearly in charge, yet completely vulnerable – they ask questions of the audience. In the dark of the theatre, among a small group of strangers, our audiences tell truths that they might never tell their bosses or friends. A sense of anonymity mixed with a liberating connection to the talented translators on stage, gives The Second City audience a starring role in generating content that is incredibly funny. And it’s incredibly funny because it is so incredibly true.
Recognition lays at the heart of comedy.
We inhabit a space that frees individuals from fear and promotes actual conversation,. That space has also served as the cornerstone for one of the most successful theatrical institutions in the world. We promote behaviors that push empathy, listening and give and take to the forefront of individual and group communication.
Is it such a stretch to imagine that these qualities might be transferable to other endeavors where people are working in groups, making something out of nothing – each group hoping to excel and improve?
Get out of the boardroom; find the space where your people will give your honest feedback; and ask the questions. The rewards will follow.