Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What Improv Theatre Taught Me About “Yes, and...”

You’re planning your next vacation. Well, your only vacation this year, which is a pretty big deal because you and your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse haven’t had one in, oh, let’s see - quite a while. It should be a delightful discussion, after all, you’re talking about something you both want and are up for.

The conversation goes roughly like this:
            “Let’s go to the beach.”
            “We always go to the beach. I want to go fishing in the mountains.”
            “What do you mean, we always go to the beach? And anyway, you had a fishing trip already.”
            “Well that was just for a weekend - this is different!”

Instead of a pleasant discussion, you end up feeling defensive, put upon, dissed, and you know what’s coming . . . a fight.

Why? You’re both grown-ups here. What happened?

You felt attacked. Your ‘beach’ idea was shot down. You retaliated, whereupon your partner got defensive, and so on. And on. All very understandable knee-jerk reactions, however, nothing that will lead to what you really want - a solution. More than that, a mutually agreeable solution.

When I started classes in improv acting, I was surprised to discover the first rule of improv theatre is “Yes, and.” No matter how outlandish the situation your fellow improv actor presents on stage, your response has to be “Yes, and.” “Yes, puppies do grow on Mars and we should think about starting a Martian kennel. How’s that spaceship coming along?” Refusing a partner’s offer is known as “blocking:” “That’s ridiculous, anyone knows there’s no life on Mars, certainly nothing like puppies.” The scene stops right there, because it has nowhere to go.

Your partner says “beach.” You block with “We always go to the beach.” And the conversation promptly goes downhill. Instead, practice “yes, and.” “Yes, we do go to the beach often, and I think a change of pace would be fun. How about maybe trying out some mountains-and-fishing this time?”

Your partner may come back with “Well I don’t know - beach is really my preference.” You continue with “Yes, beaches are great; what if we found a lake with a beach area and a fishing area.” Or whatever other creative solution you come up with.

In other words, you’re now into problem-solving, being creative together to find something that pleases both of you. You can’t do that when you’re busy protecting your own territory.

“Yes, and” - whether you actually use those words, or just the spirit of them, is a great way to both honor yourself, and your partner’s preferences.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Choose Your Thought Reps Wisely!

One of my dogs, Kobe, has epilepsy. It’s very well controlled with--of all things--Chinese herbs, but when there’s a major stressor, Kobe may be wracked with seizures. In his world, mercifully, there are few major stressors, but one of them is--thunder.

We had a major storm in California last month, with a thunderclap in the middle of one afternoon that sounded literally like the sky was falling (no Chicken Little version, this!), crashing down on our very heads.

I rushed over to Kobe and held him, which is about all I can do when he seizes, as my poor puppy trembled all over.

My mind immediately started whirring: “What if he has a major seizure? What if this doesn’t stop at trembles and shakes, what if it’s a big one, and he’s collapsed on the floor, bucking and heaving? He’s 15 now, he hasn’t had a major seizure in years, what if his heart can’t handle it?” And on and on, until I was in almost as bad shape as Kobe.

Then I thought: “What are you doing?” My dog was still trembling and shivering, nothing more, yet I was readying for disaster.

Which is exactly what we do. We rehearse for disaster. We take an event, and rather than address what’s actually going on, we let our thoughts tornado through our mind, dragging us into the land of crisis or despair.

And the worst of it is, that repetition of thought is what determines how your brain changes and grows. Science these days is teaching us all about “neuroplasticity,” which simply stated, is how the very structure of your brain changes with what you repeatedly think.  That how your brain functions then also changes depending on what you think habitually.

If you stay in disaster mode, in “problem” mode, then your brain gets better and better at thinking in that mode, when what we really need, is to be getting better and better at the “solution” mode.

Your thoughts are like the reps you perform to keep your muscles in shape: whatever reps you do, that’s what muscles will grow.

I stopped my disaster thinking. I shifted into “solution” mode. I reminded myself that Kobe hadn’t had a major seizure in years, that he was a healthy dog despite his age. I reminded myself that I know good vets, that treatments are constantly evolving, that I would always see to it that my beloved pet would get the care he needed. I held him reminding myself that there was nothing more I could do for him in that moment, other than let him feel safe, supported and loved.

It was enough. The trembling eased, all was well. Not just with Kobe, but with myself, as I deliberately reached to grow my brain the way I want it to grow--solution and optimism oriented.

Don’t let your thoughts mindlessly drag you where you don’t want to go. Practice the thoughts that will take you where you do want to go. Choose your thought reps wisely!