• Terry Withers

Improv Listening Exercises

Last week I revived RA’s monthly Learning & Development Improv Happy Hour. I was running these happy hours the first 6 months of RA’s existence and I’m not really sure why I stopped.

Anyway, I’m glad I brought it back! The event had great attendance and everyone had lots of fun. Plus we worked on a classic improv listening exercise that I was very glad to revisit.

The exercise worked so well in fact, I wanted to share it with everyone over the blog so that there would be a permanent place folks could visit to answer any questions about the structure or purpose of the exercise. So that’s what this week’s blog post will be, a quick informal tour of Repeat, Reword, Say Why.

Of course there are many other improv exercises one might use to hone listening skills. In fact, listening is such an essential element of improv, it might be harder to find a single improv exercise that couldn’t be used to address listening, than it would be to find a dozen that could. One Word Story, Environment Charades and the Mirror Exercise all jump to mind.

But Repeat, Reword, Say Why feels particularly well suited for listening training, especially for such training within a professional setting. Certainly this is partly due to its structure, which breaks listening into three different stages, all valuable for different reasons at work.

Additionally it looks at empathetic and logic based listening, two skills that I have found to be of tremendous value for those working in sales or customer service (success).

Before we get started, let me just plug next month’s (October, 2022) L&D Improv Happy Hour. If you work in Learning & Development or HR and have an interest in improv’s application to professional development, I hope you’ll consider dropping by. It’s free, virtual, scheduled for 5 PM on Wednesday, October 19th and will teach you a simple improv exercise used to build team camaraderie (think team building).

Okay, without further ado, let’s dive into Repeat, Reword, Say Why.

This is an exercise that relies on participants working concurrently in pairs, so the first step is always pairing participants up. If you’re in person you can ask the class to partner up and find a space they can have a conversation in. Online you can use breakout rooms, which I actually prefer due to the random way it pairs people together.

The reason I prefer a more random approach to creating pairs is that it cuts down on people working with who they know best already (which works against any team building goals you might harbor). Sure, you can say something like, “Pair up with someone you don’t work with everyday,” but it is very difficult to know if that request is honored. A good alternative is to use a random in person pairing method.

Here’s an example of what I mean.

What I’ll typically do is ask for everyone to walk in a large, amorphous (cloud-like) pattern in the playing area. When I think everyone is good and mixed up, I’ll shout “Stop,” and tell people to partner up with the person closest to them. That works pretty well for generating random pairs in person.

If you have an uneven number of people you can pair up with one student and run the exercise with them or you can have one trio. As this exercise is run in three stages, you can choose whether pairings should switch between each stage or stay the same throughout.

***I think I tend to have the pairings stay static with this exercise, but if I had team building as one of my goals for a workshop this exercise was appearing in, then I’d have the pairs switch.***

Okay, so once we have our groupings it is time to start the first stage of the exercise. This is the Repeat stage, where participants' ability to hear a statement and then repeat it verbatim is tested. My advice would be to run and note this stage with two volunteers in front of everyone first and then throw it out to all the pairings to try concurrently.

The directions for the first stage are easy.

Each member of a pairing will take a turn making a truthful statement of opinion. What I mean by this is something that a participant truly believes in their real life, not something imaginary related to the fiction of their improv scene. So “I think baseball is a slow, boring sport,” is a good example of what I’m looking for and “Hurry up or we’ll be late for the baseball game, “ is not.

After one participant has made their statement, the other should attempt to repeat it word for word. The exercise is more valuable if you’re really a stickler here.

Sometimes I’ll run the exercise with the participants who are repeating the original statement adopting that speaker's identity. So you would repeat, “I like ice cream,” by saying, “I like ice cream.”

Alternatively you might acknowledge the original statement is someone else’s truth by repeating it as, “You like ice cream.” The exercise works equally well both ways, though I tend to prefer the former solution for the first two stages.

Give every group time to repeat the exercise twice, so that every participant takes a turn repeating and being repeated. Then reconvene and compare notes. How easy or hard was repeating a statement verbatim?

Point out that one little word change can alter the entire meaning of a sentence, often to disastrous effect from a communication point of view. Just consider how different my earlier statement would be if it was repeated as, “I think baseball is a slow, boring port.”

The ability to be able to repeat a statement verbatim is arguably the simplest form of listening, but it is also (to be fair) probably what most people mean when they talk about listening. It is advisable to say something to this effect while discussing the implications of the first stage, both to acknowledge that you are asking for people to do something they may regard as very simple and to underline that while it may seem simple, it is nonetheless extremely important.

Time for the second stage: Rewording. I would again start this stage with two volunteers providing a demonstration of it.

The instructions for this stage are also easy:

One participant makes a truthful statement of opinion. The second participant puts the original statement in their own words. Once again, being a stickler with your notes will pay off in this stage.

For example, a good rewording of my original baseball statement might be, “Baseball is a slow moving sport and I think it is boring.” If someone rewords a statement this cleanly, you can simply note it with something like, “Good job capturing the spirit of the original statement.”

Of course there are all manner of ways to poorly reword a statement. But consider how subtly a statement may be poorly reworded.

“Baseball is a slow moving sport which is why I find it boring,” is extremely close to the original statement and almost identical to the rewording I celebrated earlier. But it includes a causal relationship that was nowhere to be found in the original statement. That statement said baseball was slow and boring, while this reworded version suggests it is boring because it is slow.

Noting the exercise at this granular level will help participants understand how difficult listening actually is and how much attention needs to be paid in order to listen effectively.

Once the exercise has been demonstrated, it is time to throw it out to all the pairings to try concurrently again. Give them enough time for each participant to reword a statement once. Then reconvene and compare notes again.

Ask for examples of subtle word changes that produced seismic meaning changes. If no one has one, then great! The people you are working with are all great listeners! If there are some, dig into them and illustrate how critical little changes in meaning can be.

At this point I like to mention that essentially we're playing a microscopic version of the telephone game here. Everyone knows that game from childhood and it may bring back some fun memories. Plus, it is interesting to think of this stage of the exercise as the telephone game in miniature.

FInally we’re onto the third stage.

In this stage we’re doing a little rewording and a lot of supporting. As in the other stages, begin by having volunteers demonstrate this stage. Do this twice, once for logical because statements and once for empathetic because statements.

As always, the instructions are fairly simple.

One participant will start by offering a truthful statement of opinion. The other will respond using a clear structure.

The second participant will say yes to the original statement, reword it and then offer a reason why it is true. Written out as if it were a math equation, the response framework for the third stage would look something like:

“Yes,” + (a reworded version of the original statement) + “because” + (a logical reason the original statement is true).

***NOTE in the third stage we should acknowledge that the person responding is in a conversation with the person who makes the original statement. So, “I really enjoy long walks in the woods,” might be reworded as “One thing you really enjoy doing is taking a long walk in the woods.”

After a demonstration, throw the exercise out for everyone to try concurrently. Provide enough time for both participants to try both sides of the exercise. Then reconvene to see how it all went.

You’ll want one or two pairs to provide details about how they did. Look to congratulate great examples of listening and to dissect misunderstandings.

Note that providing a logical because statement may result in an incorrect assumption. While mistaken conclusions are always possible, better listening should improve your shooting percentage.

Let’s take a look at how a full exchange in the third stage might play out.

Person one says “I never wear sweaters that are scratchy.” A good response might be, “Yes, if a sweater is scratchy you will never wear it, because your skin is highly sensitive.”

Not only did the person responding in this exercise listen to the original statement, they understood it at such a deep level they were able to offer a logical explanation about why it was true.

The ability to listen, put into your own words and then logically explain a statement is the deepest stage of listening. Developing this ability will not only dramatically improve efficiency (since miscommunications will be reduced) but it will also enhance team camaraderie.

I mean, I don’t think I’m on thin ice when I ask the question, who doesn’t like being listened to and then told they are right? Taking the time to listen to and then support your colleague’s points of view is a surefire way to build an exceptionally strong team.

An alternative variation, no less powerful, is to offer a because statement that is generated through empathetic listening.

As before, demonstrate the variation with volunteers, throw it out for the larger group to try concurrently and then reconvene to compare notes.

Maybe the instructions are a little more complicated this time. Instead of divining the logical reason behind the statement, the listener is challenged to hear the emotional reasons behind it. They can use the same structure as before when providing their response.

“Yes,” + (a reworded version of the original statement) + “because” + (an emotional reason the original statement is true for the person who spoke it).

So working off of the scratchy sweater statement, a third stage response with an empathetic because statement might be, “Yes, if a sweater is scratchy you will never wear it, because you’re worried about giving yourself a rash.”

So not all that different than the logical reason, but the impact on the recipient of this response can be profoundly different. Working on empathetic listening can be particularly valuable for sales or customer service professionals, because the people they are working with (clients) may be speaking to them from an emotional place. If they are, an empathetic listening because statement can be very effective.

And those are my thoughts on how to facilitate Repeat, Reword, Say Why. I hope you’ve enjoyed the read and now feel better prepared to run this exercise on your own.

Please reach out with any questions. I’m happy to offer additional clarification.

Terry Withers, Improv Comedian


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