Be obvious – be altered!

Since my two worlds of organisation consulting and improvisation started to overlap around 3 years ago I’ve drawn many lessons from the latter that have truly helped me in the former.   At the core of the overlap is my belief that truly-present-in-the-moment-with-the-client facilitation is improvising and regular practice and challenge really allows one to develop an ability to do what Patricia Shaw calls “working live”.*1

However, despite the plethora of skills, drills, experiences, games and disciplines that are available from the world of improvisation, I have found myself drawing more and more frequently on two of Keith Johnstone’s simple ideas….Be Obvious!   Be Altered! *2

Be obvious
Johnstone encourages his student improvisers to strive to be more obvious rather than more clever or more funny which are great ways to block or drain the life from a scene.  He suggests that, as we are all uniquely human, what is deeply obvious to oneself can be highly original to others.

Being more obvious may sound easy but from experience it isn’t always the case.  There are a number of things that either consciously or unconsciously cause us to think too much and de-value our obviousness in the moment: the need to impress, the impact of power and status on our self confidence, a lack of trust of one’s own spontaneity, the apparent ‘cleverness’ of others or organisational cultures that confuse their desire for innovation by rewarding cleverness.  On a personal level, I have found it more difficult to be obvious when I am worried about  being perceived as mad, bad or wrong by those around me.

I can think of many occasions where I have worked with groups who have become stuck on a particular relational problem that has either arisen or been worsened as a result of members trying to think themselves out of trouble by attempting to be more original or more clever.  Conversely, the moments of breakthrough always seem to come when somebody ends up stepping back, usually out of frustration and revertsto being more obvious.

From a personal perspective, learning to be more obvious has helped me in a number of ways.  It has helped me trust my own spontaneous response to a situation and, in my experience, my obviousness comes out far more eloquently and succinctly than my attempts at being clever.  For me, being obvious is a simple manifestation of the OD idea of using “self as instrument” – be it sharing an observation that is obvious to me but valuable to the group or simply sharing my own confusion or emotions that arise in a particular moment.  Obviousness, however it arises, has the power to unstick oneself and others.

Be altered
Listening is an essential skill for the improviser but Johnstone says that teaching people to listen more can be counterproductive and confusing.  Instead he teaches his students to be altered by their experience of the other.  Paying such exquisite attention to another human being in order to allow oneself to be altered can really deepen connectivity, compassion and understanding beyond simply hearing the words they speak.   Johnsone says that improvisation is a relational thing and if one isn’t going to allow themselves to be altered by the other then one might as well be working alone.  This assertion is a valuable one when exploring how groups work together and how individuals interact and react to each other.

I can think of many sessions where I’ve been invited to observe group dynamics where it has seemed to me that members were not only not listening but were largely oblivious to each other!  Often, especially when the heat is turned up, individuals resort to throwing different ideas, challenges or suggestions into the middle of the room almost as if the previous idea has not happened (something Bill Critchley, a mentor of mine, calls “plopping”).  Helping a group to slow down and notice how they are not being altered by the offers being made can be a simple way of helping deepen understanding of what is going on relationally.  Inquiring deeper as to why they resist being altered at certain times or by certain people can surface some interesting under the table dynamics very quickly.

From a personal perspective, regularly paying attention to how I am allowing myself to be altered by my experience of others has proven a valuable source of personal development.  The very idea of being altered means that I pay much deeper attention to and therefore have a greater presence and connection with others.  What I have found even more insightful is noticing where I am resisting being altered and trying to work out why.

The obvious-altered dance!
Whilst I said that I love these two ideas of Johnstone it has been the combination of the two into my ‘in the moment’ consulting that has proven most valuable.  It seems that working the two ideas into an ever deepening cycle of inquiry of “Be more obvious – be altered by that obviousness – be more obvious with your response” (etc) is a wonderful and simple intervention for 1:1 coaching, group work or personal development using language that is less academic and more….well….obvious!


*1 Shaw uses the opening chapter in “Experiencing Risk, Spontaneity and Improvisation in Organisational Change” (2006) to explain what she means by the term “working live”

*2 Johnstone talks about both obvious and altered at various points in his books “Impro” (1981) and “Impro for Storytellers” (1999)