Lessons from Improv: The Question Game

Person One: “How are you?”

Person Two: “How do you think I am?”

Person One:  “Would you be offended if I said you looked tired?”

Person Two: “What makes you think I look tired?”

The above is no ordinary conversation.  This is an example of The Question Game: an exercise often used by improvisation performers.  The challenge is to have a dialogue with someone while only being allowed to respond with a question; it’s particularly challenging when you have to stay on topic and move the conversation forward.  The object of this game is to control your impulse to answer the question with a statement.  Such a task contradicts the pattern of conversation that we are taught from the point we first learn to speak all together.

For me, this game points to more than just an improvisational performance skill.  It’s a good life skill.

First of all, it forces me to reflect on my natural assumption that a statement is always the best way to answer a question.  Even in the context of a dinner party, this idea can be posed.  People that are passionate about their work can love talking and are happy to answer the question ‘so what do you do?’ with an oral thesis long enough to earn them seven or eight pHDs.  I too need to keep tabs on my potentially lavish response to this question.  Given that my business as an entertainer is indeed myself, I catch myself out in conversation sometimes letting my self-absorption pour from my lips like a river dam gone burst.  (I am trying though, people; just get a bit excited by life is all.  I’m even still proud of being the fastest sperm and everything).  So one solution I have found is to secretly dip into ‘The Question Game mode’ mid-conversation to put the focus back on my questioner.  I find that it lets us share the topic in a much less biased way and creates more potential for interesting conversation.  If you attempt this remember not to overdo it, of course, that would be weird.  Just use your Spiderman senses for when it is appropriate and see how it changes the way you interact with others.

Even more broadly speaking, this game challenges me to communicate outside of normal convention in other ways.  When performing comedy and magic, collaborating on a project or even arguing with some, I wonder about other effective ways to share information and reach the desired goal.  I, as we all do, have my habits of speech.  These can limit our ability to adapt to new and unexpected situations.  Hence, another lesson that comes from The Question Game (and from most other Improv games) is to yield.  This means, using this game as an example, that if the person you are playing with introduces a topic, you can’t ignore or discount it; typically known as blocking.  Yeilding means accepting the idea that has been offered to you and then building on it in some way.  So in stand-up comedy for instance, if an audience member heckles during a stage show the performer can take on the risky task of telling them to shut up.   Alternatively they can try an improvisational approach and be affected by what was said.  Often audience members just want to contribute in a fun way, so learning to yield to their comment may very much save the performer from losing the audience’s favour by shutting that heckler down with aggression.  Boy did I make that mistake; never again THANKS TO IMPROV!

It’s worth pondering on where else these principles of impulse control and yielding can apply.  I’m very much interested to hear of any situations you find them helpful in your day-to-day life.  I have an inkling that they could be quite handy in the corporate sphere.  Keep me posted or ask me more 🙂



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