Apple Award Winning Podcast
Improv is about listening and responding. It’s paying attention to what’s going on around you and responding to it. Improv focuses on affirmation and elevation.
Jen Brown is a world-class improv performer and teacher. Being in theatre and improv, Jen was trained to listen. Being a good actor is being a good listener.
She teaches improv to professionals to improve their listening, communication, connection, and creative skills.
Jen shares what she thinks are the four points needed to be present to move forward with everyday listening:
- Who you are
- Where you are
- How you feel
- What you want
If something is not moving forward in improv, or life, then you are probably missing one of these four things.
Listening is a skill we underestimate. Choose to be present and listen actively, don’t be thinking about your next move.
Tune in to Learn
- Jen’s role models and how they were able to zone in on conversations
- Jen’s stories about her first improv audition and teaching session
- Tips and techniques to clear your mind and be present with what’s in front of you
- Admit and acknowledge how you feel and move on to what you should be doing
- Stories about trying something different and how there’s no success or failure
- Listening for progress and gifts
- Listening for the “want” has a big impact, but paying attention to feelings and emotions is just as vital
- Every way we positively and negatively interact is tapped into listening
Episode 31: Deep Listening with Jen Brown
I wasn’t entirely sure what was uncomfortable about it until the end where he said, after putting down his imaginary paper, “This is the strangest strip club I’ve ever been to.”
So, improv traditionally is simple, it’s listening and responding, it’s paying attention to what’s happening around you, whether that be words or actions or the environment, and responding to it.
I think for me though being in theatre and being in improv you are trained to listen, especially in improv because you’re picking up off of one another. If you’re not listening then you’re going to end up making an idea happen that someone already said wasn’t possible or wasn’t reality.
And from that moment I realised that so much of being a good actor was being a good listener.
Listening for four major points that need to be present for anything to move forward whether it be improv or a regular conversation: it’s who you are, what your relationship is; where you are, where you’re actually located; how you feel, what your emotions are around the situation, your location, the relationship; and what you want, what’s that thing that’s driving you, whether that be a sandwich or a cookie or something bigger than that like love or affirmation or attention.
If you’ve got those four things everything is going to cruise forward in a great improv and in a great conversation. If you’re feeling stalled out in like a hamster wheel you’re not going to be able to move forward because you’re probably missing one of those four things.
In this episode of Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words we hear from Jen, a world-class improv performer and, just as importantly, a world-class teacher of improv in organisational context. Listen to Jen as she explores the story of the executive discovering that his daughter is actually in a strip club – or is she really? And then listen how Jen outlines the four key areas that world-class improv artists listen for and how that can be applied not only in your organisational context but in everyday listening. Jenn has an amazing energy, a huge passion for improv, and practises a bit on me during the interview. Let’s listen to Jen.
I want to say that I probably was the best listener growing up and I think my parents and my brother would admit that as well. I’ve always been a theatre kid and that was even in … I was in a children’s play when I was in kindergarten, there was an old woman that swallowed a fly, it’s also a book. So the woman just swallows different animals and she just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And from that moment I realised that so much of being a good actor was being a good listener. So when I would look as if that I wasn’t paying attention at the dinner table or with my parents and they would be like, “Jenn, you’re not paying attention!” My response was always exactly what they had just said even as a kid. And as cheeky as sarcastic that might be as an adult, I still do a certain aspect of that when people think that I’m not paying attention because that skill is just carried through my entire life and really influenced what I do now.
As you think about the time going through high school, who was the best listening role model around you?
My high school drama teacher, the way she didn’t miss a trick. You could be whispering about something in a corner of the room and she would just be so attentive in that moment and it felt like sonar in an almost sense, that she could zero in on two people when a whole room was talking and know exactly what they’re saying and be able to respond to it in time. And I remember seeing that as a high schooler, that was definitely a moment of like, “Ooh, I don’t want to get in trouble.” And now as an adult looking back on something like that I was like, “Oh, I want to strive to be like that,” to be so intentional and connective when I’m listening and attending to people and then having those moments where I can step back and say, “Okay, there’s a lot happening around me, I’m just going to be here, be present and take it all in versus focusing in on one particular instance.”
As you think about the process of improv, not everyone in our audience would be familiar with it. If you just take some time to describe that for them?
Absolutely. So improv traditionally is simple, it’s listening and responding, it’s paying attention to what’s happening around you, whether that be words or actions or the environment, and responding to it. And while improv is traditionally linked with music or theatre, there are a lot of professional connections. One, it’s quite a buzzword in the business standpoint, the idea of “Yes, and…” So “Yes, and…” is one of those things that I think we all can identify with connected to improv. It’s the idea of affirmation and elevation. So, someone makes a suggestion, says something, does something, and instead of throwing up all the reasons why we can’t or writing them off or pushing them off you acknowledge that it’s been said, whether that be a repeat, adding to it in the sense of you have interpreted it a bit, you’ve made it your own, and then you are adding and elevating information.
Today you’re a skilled practitioner of improv. Not only you’re a practitioner, you are a master teacher of it. I’m curious to take our listeners back to your very first improv. I’m curious what was going on in your head before you stepped into the space.
Now, there’s two stories attached to that actually. There is my very first improv of me doing improv and performing. I performed Off-Broadway for almost 10 years. And the very first time that I auditioned for my company the director at the time said, “I don’t want to see any characters, I don’t want to see anything funny. We all know that you can do this because you’re here. We all know that you have the hairdresser from New York, we all know that you have the silly, nerdy kid, we’ve got that. What I want to see is how you listen to one another and how you attend to one another.” And I remember being this scared 20-something that was auditioning for an Off-Broadway improv troop and having that moment going, “Okay, I got this, I’m going to listen. No characters, check, and then process the information as myself,” and then watch so many people go before me who pulled out characters the entire time.
There was one person – she’s actually quite famous now – in this audition, she didn’t get cast because she pulled out every single character she possibly could think of, thinking that was what this director wanted to see, even though he was so very clear saying, “This is not what I want to see.” He didn’t repeat it, he said it once in the beginning to all of us.
And I remember getting up there and being like, “Ugh, everyone else did characters. Maybe I should too?” And I had to second-guess myself a couple of times and I finally made the big choice and said, “You know what? I heard him say this. I know I’m a good listener. I’m going to show that I’m a good listener. And if I miss this opportunity because I didn’t show a character or anything, then I miss it.”
And I remember being in the lower east side of Manhattan just getting down at the teaching job the next couple of days and the director calling me and saying that I was the only woman that they were casting out of the whole audition. And comedy was very much a boys’ field and still kind of is at times. And having that, “Yes, I knew it! I knew I heard it correctly! I knew I should trust myself in that sense.” And I remember the next time I watched an audition and I was present, the amount of people that just disregarded that one sentence and they thought that what he wanted was to see characters. And what he actually wanted was just to see how you paid attention to one another.
You mentioned there was two stories.
Yes. The other one … Now, as you said, I am a practitioner so I teach improv to professionals, and not professional actors, people that want to improve their listening, improve their communication, be more creative, connect with their co-workers. And the first time I taught a major workshop for non-friends when I was figuring out my business, it was to a group of engineers where they flew people in from Houston and California. And this workshop, there were a couple I would say, for lack of a better term, alpha males and very, very adamant that they did not need something like this and who was I, this little girl in my 20s, tiny girl telling them what to do, telling them what to listen for, telling them that this is an activity that will help listening.
And they got into it and did the activity, and it was one gentleman and the one woman in the room. And the gentleman starts pretending he’s reading a paper, and the point of the activity was to elevate one another through listening. So the woman starts dancing and she’s dancing, she’s dancing, she’s dancing, and she says, “Dad, do you think I’m good enough to be on American Bandstand?” And the guy who had fought me in the beginning about how he didn’t need a workshop like this, he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, it’s great.” And the conversation goes on with them, I’m watching it, it feels very uncomfortable. I wasn’t entirely sure what was uncomfortable about it until the end where he said, after putting down his imaginary paper, “This is the strangest strip club I’ve ever been to.” And the whole room, you could hear a pen drop in that moment, and everyone looked at him in this absolutely mortified way. He really thought he was in … That was his idea and he thought he was getting it across.
So, I called time, ended the activity, and I asked him, I’m like, “Hey, that was an interesting choice. Why did you make it?” And he said, “Well you said any choice is a good as long as I make a choice.” And I said, “Sure. She’s your daughter.” And he immediately snaps back, “No, she isn’t.” To which the entire room says, “Yeah, she is.” And to this day, this was years ago, I’ve never seen a man become so embarrassed so quickly, crumble so quickly, and them immediately become apologetic, and not in the “Sorry, it was a sketch,” in a “Hey, I’m kind of scared what I miss in real life by thinking I know what’s happening in the moment.”
If we go back a step and come into the first audition that you mentioned, at level one listening we spend a lot of time clearing our own mind and being present to what’s in front of us. When you were listening to that director you had a lot of self-talk going on and you shared that with us. What tips or techniques would you provide from that experience and also from improv to become completely present for the dialogue so that you’re not talking to yourself and your mind is available to listen to others?
Self-talk is something that we all experience, and while I would love to say it’s very easy to shut it off, it’s very easy just to be present, I think it’s the acknowledgment that it does happen, giving it the space to happen, and make a choice to attend, and then make a choice to stop that conversation. I could have gone back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in that moment saying, “Maybe I’ll do a character or maybe I’ll half-do a character. Maybe I’ll pretend I’m listening. Maybe I’ll show listening really strongly.” And it was the moment that I think I got up to be present that I said, “Okay, I’m done talking. I’m now here and I’m in there here and now.”
And so much of that is the case in improv where you have to show it, you can’t just talk about it. You have to do it, you can’t just talk about doing it. And that talking about doing it is very much the idea of self-talk, you’re talking yourself up for it, you’re debating which direction you should go and connecting. And you have to give yourself space for it. You also have to make the choice to connect with other people. You make a black and white decision, you’re not making a grey decision and being on the fence and doing something half as opposed to doing something full. Give yourself the space to have that self-talk and then move into being present and actively listening, taking in what they’re saying, not thinking about your next move. And that hast to be conscious in your own brain.
I tell students in improv that hearing and listening are very, very different because if we have good hearing we hear everything, if we’re listening it’s a conscious choice. Hearing happens, listening is a choice.
My communication has been impacted in significant ways since reading this book, I’ve had my awareness raised. I’ve always seen myself as a strong communicator but I can already feel the difference. I listen more carefully, I feel more attuned, and my relationships are richer for it. This is a book that you can read in about an hour, but the value is not in reading it, the value is in studying it, pondering it, and practising it. And if you do the results will be instantaneous.
What instructions do you provide in the class to become present in that moment so they’re just focusing on the space and the other?
Everyone processes information very differently and the idea of building a culture that is failure-free and open and celibatory of mistakes is something that I actually put a lot of time and thought into. And one of the first things that I talk to with the class and that we talk about is acknowledging that stigma of mistakes and failures and then acknowledging the fact that this is not real life, this is made up, make-believe, we’re drawing off of real life, we’re connecting with our experiences and we’re putting them up on their feet, so to speak. And that idea of just shutting off everything else and checking things at the door, again, it’s attending to it in that moment and then moving along. It’s saying, “I am nervous,” or admitting how you feel and giving it space and giving it the acknowledgment it needs and then saying, “Okay, yes I’m nervous and I’m going to make a choice to do this.”
So it’s that connection of not pretending you’re not nervous, pretending that you don’t have these fears of pulling it off and saying, “Yeah, you know what? This is reality right now. I’m going to acknowledge it and I’m going to move onto what I should be doing.” And this happens constantly. I see students … Because we don’t teach actors, we teach professionals and we teach a lot of people that self-identify as shy or introverted or nervous. And every single time someone self-identifies as shy, introverted, or nervous and they say they’re really scared to get up in front of the class my first go-to is, “Just be you and just listen. Just pay attention and respond to what’s in front of you. Don’t think about yesterday, don’t think about tomorrow, think about right now. And if it explodes it’s over in a moment, and if it soars it’s over in a moment. So, there is no success or failure.”
Do you have a story that illustrates that?
I have so many stories that illustrate that. I think the best one has to be … I teach a lot of people that consistently work with us. So this idea of being very, very nervous is something I see in new students and repeating students. And there is one woman that has been taking class with me for quite some time and I see her sitting and waiting to be the last person to take her turn, and she’s waiting to go up, and she’s always the last one to volunteer for things.
This was one of her very first classes with us, and I ask her, she’s a career counsellor at a local university, and I say, “Why are you waiting?” And she’s like, “Well, I’m thinking what I’m going to do and every time I go up there I forget everything I’m thinking of.” And it was showing, every single time of her getting up there she looked like she was overthinking and she wasn’t paying attention to the person in front of her. And then I said, “Well, how about you just get up next time and don’t plan anything? Just go up there and let the other person take the lead and you follow as opposed to drive.” And she’s like, “Well, I don’t know if I can do that, I’m type A, I’m a control freak, I like driving.” And I was like, “Totally! Try something different today and if it doesn’t work you can say, ‘Jenn, I’m going to go back to my old self.'”
So, she gets up and she lets the other person “start”. They set the stage up and set the location and set the relationship just by adding information, and she goes on to get finished. And this scene of a bank robbery where they were going in and it was supposed to be someone’s first trip at the bank but it turned into a robbery because she didn’t that she was doing it was so wildly creative. She got done and I was like, “Patty, how was that?” And she says, “That felt so free, just to be there and not care what happened next and not think about, ‘Oh, this looks silly,’ or ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be going to the bank for the first time, I’m not supposed to be robbing it.'” And I said, “That’s what being present is really all about. You just respond to what’s happening, you’re not borrowing sorrow, you’re not worrying about what happened before it.”
And it’s really nice when I see it happen, it’s that aha moment from the student.
I sense one of the things that distinguishes good improv from great improv is a sense of progress. That’s the difference between listening to the content or listening for meaning. Great listeners are focused on progressing their dialogue as opposed to their own position. How do you think listening for progress shows up in improv?
It is so present the entire time. There is something in improv called listening for gifts and looking for gifts, like a present. And that idea of listening for those very specific moments that will drive a story forward or more information, move time, move space really activates an individual both in the sense of a speaker and a listener.
So, for example, there is a group that I’ve been working with and we were talking about the idea of loaded questions. And there is regular questions where you are saying, “Oh, how are you today? I’m fine, how are you?” Those are very benign, simple questions. And going up to someone though and saying, “Ooh, how are you doing today? You look a little tired.” Within that question there is a gift that you look a little tired. So, if you are attending to that gift as opposed to just answering the question in front of you might say, “Yeah, it was a really rough night last night, ” or “Yeah, I was up late in the horse races last night.” And that exact comment, that exact “horse races last night” came from this group when we were talking about listening for those gifts. And it went on, again, to be this incredibly wildly creative moment that started with, “Hey, how are you? You look a little tired,” to an underground horse racing activity that was happening in the offices. It was all made up on the fly.
And this idea of being wildly creative all because they were listening for more than just face value. They were picking up the gifts in what we’re saying. And all of that stemmed from just having a question workshop, how we could be more creative with our questions, how we could look for information, and how people use questions that are sometimes loaded.
There’s a framework about listening within improv, and listening for gifts is one of them. What are the other listening force that you explore and help the group understand the different ways they can listen through improv?
When you’re doing improv you’re both exploring everything and nothing at the same time. So what I mean by that is you are creating something out of nothing. A lot of times two people get up there and there might be a suggestion, especially in the improv that we create with people that don’t want to be actors we might give them a base word to get people thinking or a location to really move forward. And they have to think about four different things in order to move their conversation forward.
They have to think about what their relationship is with this person – and that’s not just like brother, sister, mother, father. They have to really dig in with it like is it a good relationship with your father? Is it a bad relationship with your neighbour? Is it a volatile relationship with co-worker? So that who.
Also that where, which often times is pretty self-explanatory because you could be in a room, you could be in a school, you could be in a house, and in that sense you’re listening for details in that. So, it could be someone else’s house, it could be a house you broke into, it could be a house that you stumbled upon on vacation.
Also attending to what people want and how they feel, whether that be about the situation and one another. So in the listening for gifts you’re listening for specific bits of information. In listening for what the other person might want you’re also paying attention to tactics and how they’re trying to get what they want and how much they want it and all of those qualifying statements that surround a specific. And in that sense when people are really attending to those moments and checking in and almost doing … I don’t want to say a mental checklist because that sounds so contrived.
At the same time, if something isn’t moving forward, and very much in the same sense of life, you’re probably missing one of those four things. So I tell people, in regular conversation, in improv conversation check those boxes. Make sure you know and can define, again black and white. Make that choice, “I want to small-talk with this person”, “I want to get a raise”, “I want them to acknowledge me or give me affirmation and I feel angry when they don’t”. Having those moments of self-reflection is what’s going to drive conversation forward because you’re checking in with that moment.
Who you are is in the sense of relationship. So, if you and I are talking it’s two people, it could be interviewer-interviewee, for the people that are listening its speaker and listener, and that’s a relationship. It could also be a familial relationship like mother-father, barista-customer, so that who you are.
Where you are, it’s very specific, it’s a location. What you want, whether that be something tangible like a cookie or a sandwich or something bigger than that like affirmation, attention, or love. And then how you feel, what that feel is, if it’s how you feel about the person, how you feel about the situation, your want, the location. Emotions are just giant drivers. They push us in a direction really, really hard sometimes depending on the intensity of the emotion. And I find a lot of times people don’t check in with that and that can really influence your listening and your attention if you’re angry or should be giving yourself a timeout or distracted because you’re hungry, and granted that’s not an emotion, it’s more of a state of being, it’s that idea of checking in with yourself.
It’s really listening for four major points that need to be present for anything to move forward whether it be improv or a regular conversation.
Thinking about the four, Jenn, what’s the one area that you feel has the biggest impact if people spent their time listening through that lens?
I go back and forth between two, and I have reasons for both. So the first is I think if people are paying attention to what people want and listening for the want then I feel like there would be so much less beating around the bush and awkwardness and people feeling unfulfilled and our expectations not being met. Because we all want something in conversation, in improv. Either way, if I’m talking to you, our purpose, you and I, is you want to hear what I have to say, you also want a good episode, you want your listeners to have so takeaways. For me, we’re talking, I want you to have a good episode, I also want the listeners to take something away, and I want more people to pay attention to things like listening and what they want and how they feel and where they are and all of the great improv principles. And I feel like if we would just take a moment and attend to wants a bit more we would be able to get people the information they needed in a more concise manner, which if we get that across and either give into their want or decide you’re not going to, things would happen at a rate I feel that would be more reasonable and pleasurable for everyone. So, I think wants is a really big, major one.
And then I really do feel that checking in with our feelings and listening in for people’s emotional states is gigantic. If you’re listening to someone and they sound a little angry or upset or something is up, like they don’t sound like themselves, there is some emotion tied to all of their words, and you acknowledge it and attend to it like, “Hey, is everything all right? You sound upset.” Or “Hey, you sound really happy today. What’s going on?” And taking that moment to check in with another person’s emotional state I think shows a greater sense of connection with an individual because we so often forget how important our emotions in that driving manner.
Wow, did you feel the passion coming out of the speaker while you were listening to Jenn talk about her passion for improv. The story that stuck with me the most was actually one of the very first stories she told when the director asked people not to go into role and simply they’ll listen to the other person. Jenn was successfully cast in the role simply because she listened. How much time are we spending during our day just listening, being present in the moment, taking the care to listen fully and completely to what the other person is saying?
I think Jenn did a great job of outlining the importance of presence and understanding that there is four different dimensions to explore when you’re listening. Her reminder that you need to listen for what they want, understand the relationship you’re in, understand the role that the location plays in that, and then finally fully exploring the feelings relating to that.
What I learned the most in listening to Jenn during this interview is making sure that I’m fully present for all four dimensions of listening during a discussion. I’m curious which one of those four you struggle with the most.
Thanks for listening.
Oscar has identified the critical skill executives need to lead effectively, but which is often forgotten in a world where our attention span is defined by 140 characters. Deep listening creates trust and authentic action for leaders at all levels and is crucial to the development and retention of talent. This is a highly valuable book.
What questions did you got for a random person from Sydney, Australia, reaching out to you for a podcast interview on listening, of all things?
Yeah, why did you reach out? What made you reach out to me?
Well, in one of my listening techniques is Google Alerts. And one of the techniques I in fact teach corporate clients in how to listen without paying for really extensive social media listening tools, Google Alerts. So around specific phrases around listening. So I thought if I was just to pop in listening into Google Alerts it would be overwhelming, so I used terms like deep listening, intensive listening, active listening, careful listening, thoughtful listening. You came up under deep listening. Most recently you were published and that prompted me to do a bit of investigation. And my podcast is designed to create a palette of really diverse perspectives on listening, both personal and professional, and what I do by design is to be deliberately diverse in who I interview. So the obvious one would be 50-50 male-female, but it’s 50-50 people from overseas and people locally, 50-50 from professional listening contexts such as an air traffic controller and 50% from a personal listening context such as a funeral director, a palliative care nurse, a deaf interpreter.
And then what we want to do is role model listening on my part and just have a conversation, the big why I’m doing this. And I want to touch 10 million people by 2030 because I believe if there is 10 million deep listeners in the world we’ll create a ripple effect that will help the world come together rather than move apart.
That’s amazing, the idea of … I’m happy I turned up under that because so much of communication and connection and conflict and really every way we interact both positively and negatively with one another is so tapped into that idea of listening and how you listen and the self-awareness around it and the things that are said and unsaid and the meaning, and all of these different aspects that I found about you when you looked me up. So, it’s exciting to hear that someone is caring so deeply about a skill that I think that we underestimate a lot.