Written by Anne Lynn Gillian-Daniel, NRMN Master Facilitator
If you have ever done (or watched) improvisational theater, the zany antics actors engage in with no script or planning may seem quite removed from careful and thoughtful mentoring. However, there are some fundamental tenants of improv that map perfectly to mentoring relationships.
At its core, improv is the collaborative creation of a story from nothing. The actors enter the stage with no script, props, or plans for what they are going to say or do in front of the audience. However, there are foundational rules that allow players to successfully create something wonderful together. As in mentoring, together is a key component in improv.
“Yes, and” is the first rule of improv: you listen to what your scene partner says, you affirm their statement, and you add something. For example – if my scene partner says “Anne Lynn, the space shuttle is leaving and we need the picnic lunch you made.” Although I was not expecting this, I could immediately respond “Yes, here is space launch picnic and I made avocado potato salad as a treat for our crew.” Now, we agree about where we are and what we are doing so we can continue to build this scene together.
This strategy can be used to communicate effectively with mentees, particularly in the “No, but” culture of research. While founded on developing critical thinking skills, which are crucial to the research process, this culture can be hard on mentees who often have more enthusiasm than experience when they express new ideas. Through the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at UW-Madison, we developed a course about using improvisation to improve communication and teaching; and we have been experimenting with this technique in mentor training. At the 2016 SACNAS meeting, we asked participants to practice telling a story one line at a time. Participants were required to say “yes, and” at the beginning of each line to build the story together. We then repeated the exercise while removing the words “yes, and” – keeping the attitude of affirming and building. This exercise introduces and enforces the idea of affirming new ideas that a mentee may have. As a mentor, you don’t necessarily have to think the idea is great or even plausible. However, by affirming you give mentees an opportunity to think through and refine or reject new ideas in a safe space as they work towards better ones.
The idea of “yes, and” can be extended to providing feedback on presentations, posters or written work. In our workshops, we ask one participant to present their work in 90 seconds to two other participants. The two listeners give feedback that is based on two questions – “What did I like? “ and “What do I want to know more about the topic?” This type of feedback gets the speaker to focus on the positive aspects of their presentation, which they need to highlight further, rather than the parts that may need to be removed.
Though it has not been formalized, we are continuing to experiment with ways to incorporate active improvisation exercises into Research Mentor Training sessions as an additional avenue to strengthen participants mentoring skills.