What makes us happy? Happiness could be walking on the beach, spending time with friends and family, traveling, attending a sporting event, meeting colleagues at a conference, or going out to your favorite restaurant. And what makes us the opposite of happy? Stress!
Stress is part of our everyday lives, and it can come from so many sources: the daily frustrations of life, our jobs, our relationships, or just the ubiquitous challenges of living through a global pandemic.
But stress isn’t always bad – it can motivate us into action. And even in those situations that might initially seem like the negative kind of stress, you have the power to turn it into something positive. And I have found that having an improvisor’s mindset can help you take on the stress that comes with your job, family, and just the day-to-day responsibilities of life.
Some of the greatest comedies revolve around communication – or the lack thereof. With classics like Birdcage, Caddyshack, and Airplane, these movies are full of comedic sequences based on confusion. This confusion turns into the frustration that the characters feel and express, causing us to laugh as an audience. Why? Because we know better, and it’s funny when you’re not the one experiencing it! The problem is confusion, and lack of communication exists in our lives and our work every day. Adapting to the new normal of Zoom meetings, virtual learning, and a large remote workforce adds to the confusion. And when we’re the ones experiencing it, it’s not that funny.
Paying attention to improving our communication skills can reduce our stress and the stress of others. When people feel disrespected or discounted, stress intensifies. When they feel unheard, they shut down or respond with cynicism, distrust, or anger — and the situation becomes exponentially worse. Effective communication validates and motivates.
Being aware of your environment can help you control your involvement in whatever situation you are in. When you assess your surroundings, those around you, the actual location, yourself, your team, etc., that awareness will help you develop confidence and overcome the stress. Another way of looking at awareness is to examine how well developed your emotional intelligence is. Emotional intelligence is defined in Oxford Languages as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Being self-aware of our emotions, socially aware of those around us, and having the ability to manage our emotions, helps build relationships and ease our levels of stress.
Awareness is the bridge between communication and adaptability. Awareness goes hand in hand with being a better listener and communicator, which results in adapting to situations quicker and more effectively.
Do you know what else can help you be more aware and stress-free? Being prepared. The more you understand the environment and variables in the environment you may be going into, or are frequently in, the more comfortable you’ll be focusing on what is happening at the moment. Without preparation, you’re more concerned about your anxieties – including not being prepared! You can’t foresee the unexpected, but you can be ready for it with preparation and the confidence it brings – allowing you to be more aware of changing dynamics.
Adaptability is improv. Many things in life can be stressful, but we can “go with the flow.” It takes flexibility and confidence to address change head-on – and let’s face it, things are always changing.
There’s a game I give audiences in my seminars to exercise adaptability
- I begin by asking three volunteers to sit up front and face the audience.
- Together, these people are Dr. Know-It-All, and can answer any question — but just one word at a time.
- Inevitably, each volunteer has formed some plan – or agenda – in their mind for how they want to answer. However, when the player before them doesn’t say something that fits their agenda, they get flustered and have to scramble for a response.
That’s what happens in life – we come up with scripts or ideas before the person has even finished or started. Why? We don’t want to look dumb. And yet, we don’t respond appropriately with our scripted responses because we’re not really paying attention to the person and therefore unable to adapt based on what was said. When you start to focus, you can adapt and reduce your stress at the same time.
There is a vast difference between “I will do the best I can” and “This is going to fail.” If you adopt a better attitude — one that doesn’t broadcast defeat — you might find that you are doing pretty well. No matter your stress source, your success at overcoming stress depends on your ability to perceive things positively. You either can see your situation as a challenge and make the most of it, or you can succumb to it and let the stress win.
One of the most significant ways to achieve the kind of attitude that will yield success is learning to shift your perspective from “yes, but…” to “yes, and…”. “But” stops a thought in its tracks and introduces something else. “And” connects an additional idea to be considered jointly. Even if you don’t ultimately agree on what’s being proposed, you’re at least allowing for the possibility of something happening — thereby showing respect and support for your associate.
It works when talking to your inner critic as well! Doing this small yet significant shift in language promotes positive attitudes from all and encourages an atmosphere of acceptance and possibilities, not rejection and defeat. As a result, the workplace culture thrives.
CALM IN CHAOS
“Don’t panic.” If you ever hear someone say that it’s almost a trigger to go ahead and start panicking. You don’t have to, though – it certainly won’t help you. When you’re staring chaos in the face, you must refuse to tell yourself that you can’t do it. The fact is, you can – and awareness, adaptability, communication, all the improvisational techniques, help you operate clearly without panicking. You’ll always know you can figure a way out.
A big part of staying calm in chaotic moments is learning to manage your inner critic. We’re all familiar with it, the voice that tells you you’re not good enough, not smart enough, that you shouldn’t be here. What can you do?
You have to change the lines and start programming your brain to use “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but…”. When you do, you develop confidence. You tell yourself, “I can do this,” and the more times you repeat it, the more you will believe it. Here are a few examples of how to incorporate this line of thinking: “Yes, I know I will make mistakes, and they will not hamper me. Yes, I will not be perfect, and that means I can only get better.”
So many workplaces seem devoid of humor. I often ask my audiences, “When was the last time your coworkers burst out into laughter, and it wasn’t at your expense?” The answer depends on your culture and your colleagues. A regular dose of laughter, however, reduces stress, and it’s desirable. A Forbes article by Jacquelyn Smith validates the importance of humor: “A Robert Half International survey, for instance, found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Another study by Bell Leadership Institute found that leaders’ two most desirable traits were a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor.”
A regular dose of laughter reduces stress – it is the best medicine. It loosens us up and bolsters the immune system. Stress, on the other hand, can get us sick, causing productivity to plummet. So, start laughing and get your coworkers to chuckle as well.
Whether your stress in life results from a physical condition, a family member, or your workplace demands, so much of your success in overcoming these challenges depends on your ability to perceive things positively. Either you win, or you let the stress win. Choose to beat it with improvisation.
If you want to learn more about how you and your team can manage their stress during uncertain times, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.