Bob Kulhan started off in improv when he was 19 years old in a summer intensive at the Players Workshop of The Second City. In 1993 Bob fully graduated from the Players workshop and from 1994 to 2009 performed improv and sketch comedy at the highest level, in all the three greater theatres—iO (Improv Olympic), Annoyance Theatre, and Second City.
Since the 1990s, Bob has taken comedy improv to business with his book Getting to “Yes and”: The Art of Business Improv, as CEO of Business Improv, and to the business classroom as Adjunct Professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
This article is part of the High AQ Interview Series where executives, academics, and thought leaders discuss elevated answers. The following interview is edited for clarity.
Conversations and Improv: Let’s Get 3 Things Straight
During our videoconference interview, Bob showed off a handwritten red notecard from 1993 that his mentor Martin de Maat had given him with three foundational rules of comedy improv.
#3: Never tell stories
All three of these points have implications for conversations in business. Starting with “never tell stories” (#3), this is perhaps the most counterintuitive point from a conventional understanding of conversations. After all, when you think of a conversation, you think of telling stories…
Bob Kulhan: “You don’t tell stories because improv occurs in the moment. Stories are in the past or future. Improv happens right now. In a scene with more than one person…you are taking someone out of the conversation.”
According to High AQ Practice 1, there are six answer types in the Answer Intelligence (AQ)® that can be provided to questions—story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, action. Bob’s commentary about the role of stories, and its potential push away from presentism is interesting and in stark contrast to the default opinion among many that are interested to the AQ framework, who often gravitate to stories as an important type of answer.
Dr G: "Does this mean story is not important in conversations?"
Bob Kulhan: “When you are experienced, all three rules [on the notecard] can be relaxed.”
Bob went on to elaborate that in less experienced hands, “a story turns into a monologue. You are taking someone out of the scene.”
#2: Never ask questions
From a conversation standpoint, nothing is as sacrosanct as the role of questions in conversations. For example, in sales conversations, question-methodologies dominate. In going after a job, you can’t help but trip over lists of interview prep questions on the internet. Naturally, as someone who authored a book on the importance of answers, I recognized answers were not as prominent as questions, but my view has always been a balanced perspective that questions and answers were a marriage of equals. I was intrigued by rule #2.
Dr G: "Given the perceived importance of questions in business and society, tell me more about this counterintuitive rule."
Bob Kulhan: “You want to keep the scene going. A question deflects…it goes lateral. In contrast, a statement [an answer in AQ vernacular] provides information. You are not asking someone to provide information.”
Dr G: “This is interesting. It reminds me of a sales conversation where the sales rep asks lazy questions. One can imagine, a probing, broad question, such as “What are your company’s goals for next year?” or “What keeps you up at night?” True, these questions could have their place, but if they are offered up at the wrong time (say the very first minute of a first meeting) or out of laziness (not doing your homework), they don’t provide very much information… I can see how they would cause the conversation to go lateral, as you put it.”
Bob Kulhan: “Yes. That’s it. Again, when you are experienced, the rules can be relaxed. In the flow of a rich conversation, a question is a gift. Such questions provide information about what is missing and where the conversation should go.”
#1: Never say no
Bob Kulhan: “The most important rules is #1 Never say no. This refers to ‘Yes and’” [at the center of his book title].
Bob went on to explain that “Yes and” refers to a central premise of improv, to keep the dialogue flowing. This further underscores the importance of flow in a conversation. Conversations are not a monologue, but an interactive dialogue—a process of turn-taking and shared responsibility.
In summary, rules #1, #2, and #3 suggest two High AQ takeaways.
High AQ Takeaway 1: In less skilled communicators, there may be a tendency to use questions in a clumsy manner or to overuse stories. This is counterintuitive, as both questions and stories are touchpoint assumptions regarding conversations.
High AQ Takeaway 2: “Yes and” conversations respect that the point of a conversation (and improv) is to keep the flow going. Too many conversations lack flow, and more resemble monologues (where each side is eager to give their speech), not engaged in interactive dialogue.
Improv and AQ: What do you think, Bob?
AQ holds that that why-questions are answered with theory and story, what-questions are answered with concept and metaphor, and how-questions are answered with procedure and answer.
Additionally, there are 5 High AQ practices that provide guidance on answering questions. These prescriptions provide flexible rules used to communicate. Nonetheless, I’m often asked to discuss how conversations (as question-and-answer exchanges) dynamically unfold. In short, I’m pressed to explain more about conversation improv. Accordingly, I was excited to ask Bob directly about improv and conversations to get his expert opinion. I gave Bob an overview of AQ and then asked him some direct questions.
Dr G: “The 5 High AQ practices provide flexible rules of communication, but they require improvisation to know which specific answers to provide, in which order, over time. What thoughts do you have about Improv and AQ?”
Bob Kulhan: “Improv on the stage is all about getting the reps in. It only becomes comfortable when you gain experience. AQ is like any learned skill such as bicycling, martial arts, knife skills in the kitchen, or improv—you only feel comfortable when you achieve unconscious competency. For any individual that is embracing improv while communicating you must be so comfortable to provide any of the six answers, and pivot from one answer to the next based upon the response from the audience (one-one-one), or one-to-many.”
Dr G: “That is interesting. First, you develop your muscle memory, then you pivot to different answers as needed in the conversation. How do you know when to pivot?”
Bob Kulhan: “In improv you make initiations and declarations. For example, in 3 sentences you can know what a scene is about. Imagine, I walk in and say, “I lost my job.” That is a strong declaration for how the improv and the scene might unfold. I would imagine the same is true for AQ and answers. You pay attention to where the conversation needs to go. To guide the comedians on stage they follow shared rules. For example, one rule is always make your partner look good. If you get it wrong, you have an accountability system…if you slip and become a ball hog [taking up all the attention on stage], you will hear from your peers later that you acted like a ball hog.”
Dr G: “It seems to me that you are describing the rules of engagement in ways that are like the 5 High AQ practices. If everyone knows these communication rules, you can have effective conversations that move in multiple directions. For example, a how-question, such as “How does your product work?” implies two possible answers, a procedure and/or action. By understanding the rules of conversations, it acts like the rules of improv.”
Bob Kulhan: Yes. I agree.
High AQ Takeaway 3: Improvisation in conversation is based upon a foundation of practice. When you rehearse the 5 High AQ practices, you will have the confidence in yourself. And when all communication participants use AQ you will have a shared framework to hold each other accountable and be successful.
Dr. G: “In improv and AQ you have these rules of engagement and you want to be spontaneous. It is very possible to get tripped up trying to walk that tight rope. When I prepare job candidates for interviews, they realize they need to provide the right answers, but some get very nervous after the AQ framework when they open themselves up to the many ways they can answer (that they had not considered before).”
Bob Kulhan: “The danger of improv is getting in your head. Again, you must practice so the rules are unconscious. Then, you must listen to the declarations of others and then react. For example, if a declaration is made on stage, “Dad I’m sorry about the car”, you know you are the dad and should react to your child wrecking your automobile; you know the general direction of your next line. In interviews, the job candidate needs to relax and be in the moment and listen for the interview declarations. If not, you are missing the gifts being offered up. You are thinking too much. Now you are thinking about not thinking. Before you know it, you are in an alligator dance. Be relaxed. Know you’ll figure it out. Let’s just dance in real time.”
Dr. G: “As you discuss listening and responding in the moment, it reminds me of expert communicators we studied to develop AQ. A hallmark of the best communicators was the ability to provide all the answers. To be comfortable providing any given answer, you must be comfortable in providing all the answers. For example, if you tell a great moving story to an employee about how to lead others, a natural follow up question might be, ‘How do I take that lesson to my next meeting?’ Such improvisation entails transforming the story knowledge into a procedure and/or action to address this how-question. During the original research, we coined the term renaissance communicators to refer to communicators that could provide all the answers. In my AQ TEDxGeorgiaTech presentation I discussed Steve Jobs as such a renaissance communicator. Accordingly, in AQ and improv (at the highest level), I suspect there are no shortcuts. To be an expert at AQ you must know all the answers."
Bob Kulhan: "Absolutely, there are no one trick ponies in improv. Additionally, nobody wants to do one thing. Usually, when they get pigeonholed there is a result… an emotional outburst. If you are the smartest person in the group, you don’t want to play the nerd every time, you want a chance to play the goof ball as well. Also, you must know how to pivot in real time if the dialogue is not working. I suspect the same is true for AQ, you must know how to pivot from one answer [type] to another to meet the needs of the conversation. In business conversations you need to know when a different type of answer is needed to move the conversation along. For example, a person explains a great procedure how to do something, and the conversation needs to shift to a great story, to hammer home why that procedure is important."
High AQ Takeaway 4: A key to improvisation from any given answer type (e.g., story, metaphor, theory, concept, procedure, or action) to any other given answer type is to know all the answers. Those that aspire to provide improvisational answers during conversations with others need to embrace all six of the answer types.
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Dr. Brian Glibkowski is the author of Answer Intelligence: Raise your AQ.