How Improv Class Can Help You at Work

Do you have a workplace role model? Someone who always seems to know exactly what to say and when, how to deliver information directly without coming off as rude and how to be a self-advocate while remaining a team player?

Improv Class pbs rewireYou might look at this person and think they must have been born with these uncanny abilities, that you’re just not cut out for interpersonal workplace stuff. But Stanford Graduate School of Business management lecturer Richard Cox thinks otherwise. He believes anyone can learn to be more present at work—to be mindful of their actions and reactions when interacting with others.

5 pillars of presence

Cox teaches that presence isn’t something you have, it’s something you do. In an interview with the Stanford Graduate School of Business he outlined five things to practice if you want to be more authoritarian, and five other things to practice if you want to be more approachable. Both of these qualities take presence.

To be more authoritative at work, think about:

1. Slowness: Moving and thinking slowly can help you maintain control of a situation, and over the pace of a conversation. Thinking and acting too quickly can lead you to do or say things you don’t mean or that you’ll regret.

2. Stillness: Sit still while you’re interacting with someone. Maintain eye contact and don’t fidget. It shows that you’re paying attention and taking the conversation seriously.

3. Silence: Don’t be afraid to let the conversation breathe. A little silence when you’re talking with someone is okay. Don’t rush to fill the silence with things you don’t mean.

“If you can be more comfortable in silence, you can use that to be more authoritative,” Cox said.

4. Symmetry: Be mindful of how you’re presenting yourself. Are you cocking your head to one side or looking straight at the person who’s speaking? Are you lounging or sitting up straight? Posing yourself more symmetrically is more authoritative.

5. Space: Consider what space you own in the interaction. You can assert yourself in a conversation by making the first move to shake someone’s hand.

To be more approachable, think about:

1. Filling space: Filling the silence in conversation lets the other person know you’re not trying to be domineering, Cox said.

“If you speak or move fast,… that’s not a place of power,” he said. “You know you don’t have the control to talk so you try to get it in all in one space.”

2. Folded body: Contrary to what you might believe, the action of crossing your arms or legs can make you appear less intimidating. You seem to be protecting yourself rather than trying to enter others’ space.

3. Fidgeting: If you move around while you talk, it’s a signal that you’re approachable and not trying to dominate the conversation.

4. Flirting: I don’t think Cox means this in a sexual way, which wouldn’t be appropriate for the workplace. Doing little things like touching your face and making and breaking eye contact while you talk can make you appear friendly and approachable.

5. Giving space: Are you allowing other people to come into your personal space? Giving up some of that control is a way to appear approachable.

Want to be more present? Here’s how to start

The very first step is being aware that you can learn to be more present. Congratulations, you can check that off your list!

Improv Class pbs rewireNext you should start observing the people you work with. What qualities do you like and want to emulate? What qualities do you want to avoid emulating? How are you acting in a situation compared to another person?

Cox said that if you want a raise or a promotion, you should adopt the good verbal and nonverbal behaviors of higher-ups at your company. Don’t try to be exactly like them, but take on the best parts you see and put your own spin on it.

Fake it ’til you make it

Cox also suggested something unexpected: enrolling in improv classes or acting classes of any kind. Being aware of your actions and words in a theater setting “hones and works on these tools,” he said.

Acting classes and improv groups “are also really fun to do,” he said. “It’s a fun place to play, and many people are afraid of going to do it. … (People) come in a little afraid and leave elated because it’s so much fun.”

An improv group or drama class is a “safe space to take some risks,” Cox said. The people you’re acting with are used to newcomers and stumbles. There’s no judgement.

Acting helps you at work because “acting is not pretending,” he said. “If you see actors that are not great in film and TV, they are the ones that are pretending.”

Real actors get into the mindset of, “How would that person actually show up in that setting?”

That’s how you should mentally show up to workplace interactions. Being present is all about being authentic, or “in tune with the emotional state that you’re actually in,” Cox said. “If it’s truthful, then you believe it, and it’s really you.”

Practice, practice, practice

To get yourself into an authentically confident mindspace, be thinking ahead about a work interaction. If you’re supposed to present something at work one day, start saying the presentation to yourself as soon as your wake up. Strike confident poses in your house before work and in the bathroom before the presentation.

Improv Class pbs rewire“By doing that preparation, it changes you inside and it will carry over to the meeting,” Cox said.

Cox himself psychs himself up before a lecture with a playlist of “ultimate epic movie soundtracks” from superhero movies.

“I know I am tricking myself and it still works every time,” he said. “And I laugh at myself noticing that it’s working and I really feel the emotions.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at kmoritz@tpt.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.

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