In improv, we learn to “listen with our whole body.” When performing in a scene, it is important not just to hear the words that our scene partner says, but we must also “hear” their facial expression and their body language as well. Newer improvisers tend to lean so heavily on words that they miss these cues, or don’t send them. Experienced improvisers know that you can speak volumes without uttering a single syllable.

When coaching improv, I work very hard to get the people I’m coaching to realize this. To understand it. To feel it in their very bones. One of my favorite exercises for this is one in which two actors stand back-to-back, and think of an emotion… No, they don’t just think of an emotion… they use every bit of their sense memory to bring that emotion to life. They live in that moment as fully and completely as they can. And then they turn around, and begin the scene silently, taking in the full range of their partner’s face and body.

This exercise works because human beings have evolved over the millennia to be deeply and profoundly in tune with the most subtle emotions encoded in the human face. Take this classic example:

An Illustration of the "Thatcher Effect", by psychology professor Peter Thompson, 1980

An Illustration of the “Thatcher Effect”, by psychology professor Peter Thompson, 1980

When the image is upside down, nothing looks amiss. It is only when the face is right-side up that our supercharged facial recognition circuits kick in and the image suddenly appears grotesque.

As consultants, being able to listen to our clients, truly listen to them, requires listening with our whole bodies. We need to listen to both what they say and don’t say. We’ll find more often that what they don’t utter aloud can say so much more than what they do. What causes them pain? What do they fear?

This, however, is where our goals in improv and in consulting part ways. In improv, we always want to confirm fears. We want to make the pain worse. If there’s a fire, we want to pour gasoline on it rather than water. In consulting, it is our job to help our client, relieve their pain, and grow their business. Technology is a tool with which we do this, yes, but as far as tools in the belt go, technology isn’t nearly so important as empathy.

We’ll never truly understand what our client needs unless we listen with our whole body.