105: “Yes, and…” approaches to improv-ing work with Bob Kulhan

By January 11, 2017Podcasts

 

Business Improv Founder Bob Kulhan reveals how improv techniques can be applied to the workplace.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How improv’s “Yes, and…” philosophy can enrich many facets of work
  2. Improv’s wisdom on conducting better meetings
  3. How to reframe difficult conversations with “Yes, and…”

About Bob

Bob Kulhan is the Founder, President and CEO of Business Improv®, and a world-class leader in creating experiential training and development programs for corporations of all scopes and sizes. Based in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Business Improv serves a large international roster of blue-chip firms such as Google, PepsiCo, American Express, Capital One, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Ford Motor Company, Hilton Hotels Worldwide and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. Kulhan’s consulting and teaching work with these clients emphasizes the use of improvisational techniques in developing leadership, improving managerial structure, honing team skills, fostering a collaborative corporate culture, busting blocks to creativity, facilitating conflict management, connecting Millennials, and encouraging creative and adaptive problem solving. His latest book is Getting to “Yes, and.”

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Bob Kulhan Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Bob, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome at Your Job Podcast.

Bob Kulhan

Thanks for having me, Pete. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I’m so excited to have you. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun and laughs along the way. I always like it when there’s… We’ve had maybe three-ish guests with a comedic background, and that always makes for a fun chat.

Bob Kulhan

Uh-oh. You’re setting the expectations pretty high already.

Pete Mockaitis

Don’t fail me and the thousands listening.

Bob Kulhan

I’ll do the best I can.

Pete Mockaitis

Super. Actually, we’ll start with a rather serious note, then. So I was perusing your book and I really dug the way you said the line, “Return on investment means something to me.” And I could totally resonate with that because as a trainer, you see all sorts. Some land themselves with ROI, and some, I’m scratching my head a little bit, wondering what the heck are they doing there. So maybe you could kick us off by telling a fun story of a cool transformation you saw with a group or a team when you introduced them to using these business improv principles.

Bob Kulhan

I could introduce you to many. So it’s really kind of a roll the dice on which type of group you want to hear from. And maybe I’ll give you this option as well. Are you looking for sort of scientifically and engineer-minded individuals or the creative types? One side versus the other? Or is there a specific field as well that you’re looking for?

Pete Mockaitis

I would like a hard-nosed business money-loving group, if I can get choosy.

Bob Kulhan

Oh, absolutely. Okay. So this was actually mentioned in the book. I don’t think I can mention the group of investors by name. However, it’s a major player in the finance world. And I was working with their elite performers, so the best of the best, one of whom literally was handling a top three basketball player’s money. I want to be careful not to mention that person’s name as well.
So really what the focus on was how to listen to what these high-income earners are saying and process it in real time, then cherry-pick facts that would ultimately allow those high-income earners to understand that these investments, X, Y, and Z, best fit their portfolio. So these investors could go in, of course, and try to push it on them or shove it on their laps and say, “XYZ, trust me. I’ve earned this money for you. Go this direction.” Most people in this day and age, though, are much more communicative and want to be heard and want to have a relationship with people, including the people handling their money. So it’s important to build that relationship with them.
So that’s one of the key aspects that we’re focusing on right away, using the tenets of improvisation to slow down, be focused, listen to what somebody else is saying, use the elements of what they’re saying to show that you understand them, thereby strengthening the relationship with them, and then ultimately show them why the XYZ investment best services them. And we did that as well in the spirit of telling stories in real time, so how to take this data, this raw material, and make it measurable and impactful and memorable to people who might not otherwise be interested in “XYZ percentage over this, and yields this.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, that’s really interesting and fun. So in practice, was there a unique sort of a tactic or an exercise you used in the business improv world to unlock those kinds of listening behaviors?

Bob Kulhan

Everything has to start with “Yes, and…” I know that’s in the title of my book. It’s really the cornerstone of all improvisation around the world. So I didn’t create this phrase, and there’s been other many books with that in the title, as a matter of fact as well. This is a phrase developed by Viola Spolin in the 1930s in Chicago.
The tenets of improvisation specifically around “Yes, and…” focus on “yes” being unconditional acceptance and “and” being a way to slow the brain down and focus on how you accept what was given to you. So the improv definition of “Yes, and…” is “yes” is unconditional acceptance; “and” is you take what’s given to you and build directly upon it, which isn’t, at least in connotation, always the case in business.
Really, what we’re talking about is “yes” being a form of understanding and “and” being a bridge to how you understand and how you are authentically in the moment. And that really is the foundational block. I mean, that’s got to be block number one. And that single two-word phrase has so many different levels of applicability, including showing understanding, slowing the brain down, and postponing judgment.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, that’s so much good stuff there. So could you maybe unpack this principle for me a little bit? At Second City, I did an improv intensive, which was really fun.

Bob Kulhan

Great.

Pete Mockaitis

And it’s so funny. I told my friends, “I think it kind of loosened me up.” They’re like, “You weren’t already loose, Pete?” But what I really remembered, years later, when it comes to the “Yes, and…” was if one person in a… not a sketch, an improvisation… What do we call it? A scene.

Bob Kulhan

Scene.

Pete Mockaitis

A scene. Thank you. If one person in a scene says, “Oh my gosh, what’s this giant safe doing here?” and the other person says, “It’s not a safe. It’s a spaceship,” then that leaves everybody wondering, “Is it a safe, or is it a spaceship? I don’t know what’s going on here.” It’s just sort of confusing and lame for everybody. And I thought that was a great example of just like, “You’re right. It really is,” like you would have to play by that rule, that principle, philosophy to really have a ball game on your hands and to make anything kind of sensible and fun emerge from it. So I guess that’s my experiential understanding of “Yes, and…” and why it matters and is important. Could you maybe unpack a little bit more how it shows up in business in effective, productive, good ways?

Bob Kulhan

Yes, and…

Pete Mockaitis

Oh.

Bob Kulhan

You’re talking about one of the great institutions that teaches improvisation, sketch comedy, and certainly the mothership as well, so you were learning from a fantastic place. Without knowing who your teachers are, I’m going to roll the dice to say that you had many great teachers from that great place. And scenically, what you’re breaking down is the denial and negation aspect of a “No,” or a “No, but…” versus a “Yes, and…” in that scene.
So “Look at this giant safe.” “That’s not a giant safe. That’s a spaceship,” can easily be reframed instead of that at least implied “no,” or as you said, I think, “No, it’s not a safe” into a “Yes, and…” So “Look at this giant safe.” “Yes, and it’s also a spaceship.” So you can take that framing, and instead of negating it and denying it, reframe it as a “Yes, and…” And now, it’s the best of both worlds, which opens up possibility and potential galore scenically in improvisation.
Now, you could take what we’ve just talked about there and overlap it to business in a number of different ways. The most classic, of course, if you’re going to put one over the other would be a collaboration, or even a creative collaboration, a brainstorming session. You can extend it that far as well, wherein in a collaboration, idea sharing, brainstorming session, if somebody brings an idea to the table and somebody else says “No, we can’t do that,” or “No, this is not a safe. It’s a spaceship,” you’ve slapped the hands of the person who said that and you’ve taught that person that they’re not supposed to participate in this way, and in doing so, you’ve taught a lot of the other people around that person that there’s a certain set of limitations in structure on how to succeed in an open collaborative setting.
So the use of “Yes, and…” in that setting as it relates to creativity and exploration and discovery is really creating a culture of acceptance wherein ideas are shared openly and people are not afraid to fail, not afraid to say the dumb thing, the wrong thing, knowing that at least for a period of time in this culture of acceptance, the diversity of perspective and opinion is cherished, and we thrive upon it. In fact, we feast upon it. And in doing so, the greatness comes out inherently, just like it should actually in an improv scene.

Pete Mockaitis

Geez, I’m inspired. You talk good. That’s probably why clients like you.

Bob Kulhan

Well, we just started. That’s only one aspect of this great two-word phrase.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, keep it going, then.

Bob Kulhan

What I was going to say, though, in the spirit of applicability to business in relation to a collaboration, idea sharing session, even brainstorming session, something that’s revolved around a need for openness and creativity, there’s a difference between that creation process wherein you really have to apply and regulate the tenets of “yes” improvisation, specifically “Yes, and…” as it relates to creating this open culture, and draw a line between that section and the time to start judging it again, because not every idea ultimately is a great idea.
And you slipped upon the difference… Well, you mentioned sketch comedy versus improv. And so if we’re going to continue a parallel here, once you get into sketch comedy, there’s a refinement process that needs to take place. You’re practicing the material over and over again. You’re workshopping it. You’re looking at different heightening elements. You hopefully have an outside eye director of some kind, or at least coach who’s giving you feedback from that audience perspective and intelligent improv-slash-sketch-comedian perspective.
And this type of refinement then moves into the judgment section. Not all ideas are going to work. Not all premises can be actualized; otherwise, the scene itself is just going to be messy and convoluted, and you’re going to lose the comedy aspect of that. And that works the same in business. Once you start moving from the creativity process, which is the creation process, to the innovation process, which is driving that creation to a productive use, you have to have that fine-tuning and judgment take place.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s so good. This is reminding me a little bit of a previous guest. Afif Ghannoum, in Episode 46, talked about creativity and why it doesn’t flourish in many organizations. And it was so fascinating. He said, “Boy, you go into these different rooms of people, and they want to get creative or whatever.” And he said you could just feel palpably the fear in the room associated with “Ooh, I don’t want to say anything; otherwise, there’s going to be some sort of negative consequence,” like “Now, that’s your job. Go do it,” or “That’s stupid,” or you’ll just get a little bit of like a look from people like, “Who is this joker? What is he thinking?” And so people just shut down, like “Well, forget it. It’s not worth it. I’m not going to try anything out if it’s ultimately just going to cause me pain.” And you’re saying that the “Yes, and…” has a powerful means of diffusing that such that people feel affirmed, but there’s a later sort of editing stage such that the insanity does not ultimately prevail, if it is a terrible idea.

Bob Kulhan

Oh, absolutely. One cannot execute every idea. So the spirit of “Yes, and…” is not to accept every idea as if you’re going to execute every idea. It’s to slow down. It’s to listen to it. And the “and” is the bridge to how you’re paying attention to it, how you can bring your own ideas to the table, whether it’s spitballing and brainstorming, or in the spirit of leadership, just building a relationship wherein somebody knows that they can bring ideas to you, communicate with you, regardless of it being right or wrong, or even applicable at that moment. And then the execution of those ideas, that’s really where the money hits the road, I guess. I don’t know what I’m trying to say with this one. It’s where you have to select the ideas and you have to do something about it.
The trick, though, as you mentioned, is to understand that those barriers, like fear, that you brought up is a very real and very contagious thing. And “Yes, and…” is a great way to regulate that fear and hold people accountable so that that does not become so contagious it completely logjams the meeting and keeps people from talking, and then you have to have another meeting to solve the problem that you didn’t solve in the first meeting, or a third meeting to solve that problem you didn’t solve in the second meeting, which was the problem you should have solved in the first meeting, because it was a culture of fear and judgment as opposed to just saying “Let’s get all our ideas out there, separate this process from the judgment process, and then we’ll get into the judgment process.”

Pete Mockaitis

Well, that’s great. So you said the word “meeting” several times. That’s a particular thing I want to zero in on. So how do we use the “Yes, and…” and the principles that you’re sharing in your business improv teachings to run meetings more effectively?

Bob Kulhan

Yes. Okay. Here we go. I just want to keep “Yes, and…”-ing you, so I just said, “Oh, yes, okay.”

Pete Mockaitis

Take it away.

Bob Kulhan

I’m calling myself out. Okay. So to use the tenets of improvisation to help meetings run effectively, really what we need to do is back away from the meeting itself and look at how the meeting is being run. Who’s the leader in this meeting, and what is the architecture of the meeting? And I love talking with you as somebody who spent some time in the Chicago improv scene because I’m just going to continue to overlap the two.

Pete Mockaitis

All right.

Bob Kulhan

What you’re really talking about now is thoughtfulness on a director’s standpoint, if you’re the leader of this meeting, or the coach or the teacher inside the classroom, and if you’re putting up that final show. And you have to be able to understand what that show looks like, what’s the running order, at least in some form. It might not come to the table, understanding completely, as it’s ever evolving, yet if there’s no leadership and there’s no guidance, then the possibility of that meeting running successfully is challenged, to say the very least. So before even going into the meeting, having some kind of game plan of what you want to cover, your agenda, and time limits to it. What I would also say in the spirit now of going back into the improvisation techniques are energy and attitude are choices. So before an improv performance… And Pete, is it safe to assume you did a few performances in the intensive?

Pete Mockaitis

Well, it was like four days, but yeah, we had an opportunity to sort of shine.

Bob Kulhan

Fantastic. What did you do before the performance? Did you guys huddle up, get together, shake ‘em eights, something like that?

Pete Mockaitis

Well, yeah, we did a little bit of warming up. Sure.

Bob Kulhan

There you go. Okay. So when I say energy and attitude are choices, I’m talking about getting in the right mental state and the right physical state to go into a meeting to be productive. Now, you can extend that past the leader and say anybody into a meeting. So just like you did before show, taking a minute or two. Where are you mentally? Where are you physically? If you’re not physically at a place you need to be so that you are mentally on point, how can you get your blood pumping? How can you move around a little bit?
And then entering this meeting, now I’m going to go back to “Yes, and…” With a “Yes, and…” type of philosophy, you’ll be the person with a good attitude. You’ll be the person holding all the people accountable in a fun way so that it doesn’t turn into an alligator death roll of negativity and we’re shooting people down. Encourage the people who are less vocal to speak up more. Take the people who are more vocal and redirect them so that they’re not steamrolling other people. Be that great facilitator, whether you’re leading from within or leading from on high. And then you’ve set yourself up for success because you’ve created a game plan on how to succeed, you’re mentally prepared, and you are physically ready to go.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. That makes a lot of great sense, and I see the carryovers there. So I would love to get tactical for a moment, then. When it comes to getting your energy and attitude into a great spot, how in practice do you do that quickly? Sometimes, I’m thinking some listeners here, they might be kind of in isolation, a little bit of an island, like “I can’t grab my teammates and say, ‘Hey, guys, we’re just going to get silly with it a little bit in a room,’ and ‘Red ball! Zip zap zoom!’” or whatever. So what would you recommend for an individual trying to get in the right energy and attitude place even if they don’t have collaborators who want to play with them?

Bob Kulhan

Fantastic. You hit it right on the head because anytime you’re going to affect something, it has to start with the individual. So as we tipped upon it before, do you know your energy? Do you know your attitude? Let’s say now in this scenario, you’re finding that you’re not sick. You’re just not energetic. You’re not hungover. There’s no external factors influencing the fact that you are a little lethargic. And you’re mentally unfocused.
So what can you do? First, if you can isolate yourself, why not? Including going to the lavatory, the bathroom. I think the eyes are the windows to the soul. And I’m a big gut check type of person that if I’m a little bit off base in any capacity, I go to the bathroom, splash some water, just look in my eyes, and I get that opportunity objectively to see what other people are looking at really. And then I can say, “Oh, this is really what you’re dealing with today,” and see what I can change about that.
More often than not, you can find some isolated space to, let’s say 6, all the way down to 1, and really working on speed and just getting your blood pumping. , shake ‘em eights. That’s what I asked you before if you did that. Shake your right hand eight times, left hand eight times, right foot eight times, left foot eight times, counting down, 8 to 7, 7 to If you can’t do that, why not shake your legs a little bit? Just bounce a little bit. Pace a little bit with a little bit of intent and focus, a little faster than you normally would walk through an environment. Do a couple of laps around your workspace, just to get the heart pumping.
And also, in the spirit of an athlete, visualize what you’re going into. Get mentally focused so that you’re not shooting off 20 emails before you enter this meeting. You’re focused, you’re present, and you’re ready to go. Simple things like that. And I would also throw out the idea of not eating a heavy meal before meetings, eating something a little bit light that kind of keeps you ready to work right there.
Now, let’s take a scenario, though, that you’re sitting at your desk and you really can’t move around and you can’t make your way to the toilet. There’s no isolated space. You could sit on the edge of your chair, which forces you to do one of two things really: lean all the way forward on your desk, or if not, then you’re sitting really straight up. So focus on sitting straight up. Bounce your feet a little bit. Just get the blood pumping because if the blood is pumping, the heart is moving. If the heart is moving, then the oxygen inside the blood is reaching the places it needs to reach. And that’s what we’re talking about here. How do you oxygenate the brain?

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. That’s great. So now I’m curious, then. Are you doing any special breathing as you’re doing these movements or sittings?

Bob Kulhan

I think you should always breathe, right?

Pete Mockaitis

I’m in favor. I don’t know if there’s like a “In four counts, six counts.” I don’t know if there’s any special style or protocol, or you just–

Bob Kulhan

My wife had a natural birth with both our children. I’m sure she could coach us through that if we need it. As a former high school athlete… Wow, I can’t believe I’m harking back to my glory days. Is that it? I peaked in high school?

Pete Mockaitis

Uncle Rico.

Bob Kulhan

I was told by my track coach, “Breathe into your nose, out through your mouth.” I think the hair follicles, the cilia on your nose filter the air so it’s more pure when it’s going through your body. I’m not really going to give direction one way or another on that. I would say, though, that you should always breathe. Breathe, breathe, breathe. It’s such a huge aspect of life because if you’re not breathing, the alternative is scary. So I’m in favor of breathing.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, I think people really do kind of forget.

Bob Kulhan

It’s true.

Pete Mockaitis

So it’s not a flippant suggestion.

Bob Kulhan

No. Again, when we’re brought into presentation training all the time, people get tensed up. And when they get tense, they lock their knees. And when you lock your knees, oddly, you cut circulation to the brain in some capacity. And that’s where a lot of people pass out. So one of the tricks is just bending your knees. Bend your knees often. It creates a little bit of a bounce. If you don’t want to bounce, then just bend your knees every once in a while to keep the blood moving.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, man, I used to help with these youth leadership seminars, and the big one was in Washington, D.C. This was HOBY World Leadership Congress, Arthur Woods. We talked to him back in Episode 6, Arthur Woods. He was a fellow HOBY guy. So at the HOBY World Leadership Congress, people pass out all the time, which was spooky because you have 400 high school sophomores in the hot sun in D.C. in the summertime. And so when we would take our photo, we would instruct them repeatedly, “Bend your knees. You’re standing in close proximity to a couple hundred people in the hot sun. Don’t pass out right now. Bend those knees.”
So well-said. Now I’d like to hear a little bit about these business improv principles can show up in being more influential. Like if you have to handle a tricky conversational piece of territory or maybe a negotiation, how does some of this stuff come to life in those contexts?

Bob Kulhan

Okay. So in some aspects, if I understood you correctly, you’re talking about a difficult conversation of some kind. In other aspects, you’re talking about negotiations. And the third one, which was actually the first one you mentioned, if I recall correctly, was influence or being more influential.

Pete Mockaitis

Right.

Bob Kulhan

So that would be the one I’m focusing on because I think you can apply influence to the other two aspects, whether it’s difficult conversations or negotiations in some capacity.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Let’s do it.

Bob Kulhan

All right. So there’s a big difference between influence and persuasion, right? Persuasion is getting somebody from Point A to Point B, and influence is really how do you affect people? How do you influence them? And you can influence them in a number of different ways. So previously, we were really talking about energy and attitude being choices. Well, sure enough, your energy and attitude can both be contagious. You can influence people with your attitude, and you can influence people with your energy.
An example of that would be the chameleon effect where you go in and you sit a specific way, and next thing you know, you look around the table and all the people are sitting the same way that you’re sitting, whether you’re leaning forward or leaning back. It ends up becoming contagious in that capacity. And framing of language can actually do the same thing. So now you’re looking at “Yes, and…” and the difference between “Yes, and…” and “Yes, but…” or the difference between “Yes, and…” and “No,” or “No, but…” for example, and the way that it makes people feel.
Now, as you start applying that toward a difficult conversation or negotiations, quite often, people have associated “but” with a trigger word of negativity, denial, or contradiction in some capacity, and it really sets a lot of people off in that capacity. So you can reframe your negative comment, your difficult conversation that you have to have, criticism, if you will, in a positive light, if you’re trying to build a relationship that is based in trust and respect and a shared purpose, for example. If you’re trying to lead like a tyrant, you can use whatever language you want, absolutely. If you’re going to be a more mindful leader, though, somebody who is aware of emotional intelligence and where people are and really trying to cultivate talent so that ultimately the loyalty is existing in that relationship and people want to intrinsically work for you, not extrinsically, the money, the bonuses. The heart, the gut, that’s intrinsic motivation.
So how do you inspire, then, other people? The framing of language makes a big difference. And we’re not talking about a significant period of time in either one of these. We touched upon the difficult conversations because leaders are pretty good at giving criticism without paying attention to the effect that criticism has on people. So it’s the difference between putting your arm around somebody and walking around with them a couple of blocks and saying, “Let’s talk through this. Let’s walk through this together. Let’s wrap our head around it,” taking an additional 10 or 15 minutes, versus putting a steel-toe boot on and kicking them really hard and saying, “You should learn from that which I just gave you.” And I think there’s a correct time and place to do a number of those and everything in between those two extremes.
The key to this, though, is thoughtfulness. And improvisation is an art form that’s based in the moment. You have to be present. You have to be there mentally as well as physically just to simply react, adapt, and communicate. So if you’re really focusing on being present and being in the moment as it actually does relate to and link to directly mindfulness, then you can enter a difficult conversation or negotiation where you are acting either as the mediator, or you’re one side of it and they’re the other side and you have to find that common ground. You could slow the pace of the conversation down. You can notice trigger words or emotional reaction from your partner or partners or adversaries perhaps in that role. You could use that as a technique to fire up the conversation, or you can recognize that and diffuse the tension inside a conversation because of your level of awareness. You should come prepared, though, absolutely.
Now, what “Yes, and…” is going to do is not negate the anger. It’s to recognize the anger. You’re recognizing the anger, the frustration, the adverse way that somebody is reacting to a negative comment, and… Now here’s the “and” part. You’re doing something about it. You’re putting yourself in the position to be thoughtful, to be mindful, to be influential as a leader. And a leader does not necessarily mean rank in your company. You could have a low rank and still be a leader.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Thank you. Now that’s some great principles at work there. Could you maybe give us an example of a situation and maybe even some explicit verbiage (not that it has to be profane, but rather it’s just spelled out the actual words people are saying) about just one of those conversations unfolding in real time and how it could go down?

Bob Kulhan

I can give you a difficult conversation that turned into a “Yes, and…” scenario and a huge learning opportunity for me.

Pete Mockaitis

Let’s take it.

Bob Kulhan

Okay. Right out of the gates, early on my career, at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, I’m an adjunct professor there and we created an Exec Ed program. It was a four-day program, three hours a day, four days in a row, Day One all about shedding inhibitions and postponing judgment. That was the theme. That was the focus. And this was the first time I was working with high-ranking people, VP status people. And at the end of the first day, they went up to the dean and it turned out to be a vocal minority. They were very vocal, and the dean didn’t know it was a minority at that time. He thought these people were representing the entire class, said they didn’t want to work with me anymore, so I got fired for all practical purposes.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, they did not postpone their judgment. One-day judgment.

Bob Kulhan

They did not postpone it. Yeah. That was an irony that one-fourth of the way through the program, they decided there was nothing left to learn.

Pete Mockaitis

Wow.

Bob Kulhan

So the dean comes to me the next morning before the class. It was an afternoon class, and I end up having like an 8:00 in the morning meeting with the Dean of Exec Ed, and he tells me what happens. So that’s the “yes” part. And the “and” part is him saying, “Look, I’m going to honor your contract with us. You’re not going to be in front of these students. You’re not going to come in the classroom. What I want you to do is take the rest of your time here at Fuqua, and I want you to redesign the program. I believe in you, I believe in this, and this is an investment in you, so make it work.”
So I spent the next three days gunning the program with my co-facilitator at that time and putting it back together again in a way that makes sense to businesspeople so that there’s a great understanding of what improvisation is and how it actually supports and serves needs inside the business community. At the end of the four-day commitment, the third day now with this homework assignment, the Dean of Exec Ed comes back. I meet with him. He asked, “What did you do? Show it to me.”
So we’re walking through it from top to bottom, inside and out, answering a lot of difficult questions. Now, in the spirit of “Yes, and…,” some of which we were prepared for because of the way that we put this program together; others we weren’t prepared for. So still, having to answer those difficult, unexpected questions with the stakes of what’s going to happen with my relationship there, he liked it so much that he pulled us out of this other program which was a creative leadership program, in which we were a small piece of a much larger pie, and created a business improv pie, in and of itself, that only focused on this stuff.

Pete Mockaitis

Very good. Okay. So the cool demonstration there was on the part of the dean in terms of he’s not just like, “What are you doing? This is garbage. Get out of here,” but he’s like, “Yes, there were some substantial complaints, and we have an opportunity to integrate those such that we make a superior offering.”

Bob Kulhan

Absolutely. And the icing on that cake is several people from that four-day program, from which I was released, ended up taking the three-day program that I co-created and rated that as a much more effective creativity program than the other program.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s so cool. Nice work.

Bob Kulhan

That’s an example, though, of, as you mentioned, the dean employing a “Yes, and…” philosophy and even “Yes, and…” tactics to turn what could be deemed a failure or a loss into an opportunity and ultimately a successful program for them.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, yes. Those were probably three pretty intense days of intellectual work there, huh, and with a gun.

Bob Kulhan

You know, it was three very humbling days because I was living in the corporate housing area that these students who fired me were also living in, and I had to walk by them every single time I was going to meet with this other co-facilitator for this program. And I felt their glares. I felt their shame. It was the first time I got fired, and now I have to continually walk in front of, as if I’m displayed in front of the people who fired me.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, man.

Bob Kulhan

And I really had to figure out over the course of those days how to get the mettle of my character back. It started small, and then “Raise your head. You don’t have to make eye contact. Just walk forward. Understand that you’re going to live. You’re going to breathe. Now make eye contact.” So it was, I think, a study on at least the spinal evolution of man, as I first got fired to the time I ended those intense three extra days.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, wow. That’s good. Thank you so much for sharing that. That was rich and right on point. So now I’m curious. Is there anything else you want to make sure we cover off before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Bob Kulhan

No. Let’s do it.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Sure thing. Well, could you start us off by sharing a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Bob Kulhan

“You got to use what you got to get what you want.”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s fresh. Could you expand upon that a little bit? I think someone might just let that flow or run right by them, and it moved you. Tell me more.

Bob Kulhan

I don’t know who gave the quote. It was a sample in an Eric B. & Rakim song, I think from the late ‘80s, a rap. And it’s always resonated with me because the core of that is you have everything at your disposal. And when people tell you you can’t succeed, it’s up to you to believe in them and die essentially or say, “No. This is something I believe in, and I’m going to push forward.” And I can’t tell you how many people told me that I’m going to fail, this is not worthwhile, why am I going on this path? Especially because many of my peers are very successful in the entertainment industry tremendously. You’ll recognize them in a heartbeat. And I have many more friends who are less recognizable and very successful as well.
And fortunately, my friends weren’t the ones telling me I couldn’t succeed. Those who were on the periphery were like, “Why don’t you go down that same path?” and I just said, “I’m going on this path.” And the spirit, to me, of that quote is just if you are driven and you open yourself up to learn and can recognize possibility and potential and opportunity and can capitalize on it and learn from mistakes, then you can continue moving forward and finding a place that you truly love.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s great. Thank you. And could you share with us a favorite study or experiment or piece of research you find interesting?

Bob Kulhan

I am a big fan of learned helplessness. Martin Seligman is the psychologist. And I can walk you through a couple of examples of this. Really, he at first studied learned helplessness, and then that moved into learned optimism, and now he’s one of the leaders in positive psychology and learned happiness. So his career on its own is an interesting one, where it started, if you will, in the negative and moved to the hope of optimism, and now really how do you achieve that great happiness aspect. So all three are really great.
The learned helplessness to me is particularly interesting because a lot of people, I think, incorrectly feel like they’re trapped in situations. And many of them, be it circumstantial or relationship, are matters of choice. And we enter into depression at certain times in life based on things that we can really control that we just don’t do anything about. And depression, I don’t, of course, (1) mean chemical depression. I mean environmental or circumstantial or relationship. And (2) I don’t mean full, flat out “I’m not leaving my bedroom” and you’re sitting in the dark crying depression. I’m talking about just that mental state of not being happy. And I think there’s a lot of choice and power that we as human beings have that should be enacted more often than it is.

Pete Mockaitis

Powerful. Thank you. And do you have a favorite book?

Bob Kulhan

I love “The Princess Bride,” the book and the movie.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, it’s funny, though.

Bob Kulhan

It is a pretty cool book. “The Godfather” is a really, really good book in my mind.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite product or tool or app, something you use to be more awesome at your job?

Bob Kulhan

Improv, improv, improv. That’s so many tools and so many apps. I don’t know. A picture of my kid. That really gets me fired up.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, awesome.

Bob Kulhan

Teaching improvisation is one of those things that you don’t really need a whole lot. You need a room that has enough space to be physical in, do some experiential learning. You need a bunch of people who are at least curious enough to see what this is all about. That’s it.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Got it. And how about a favorite habit, a personal practice of yours that’s boosted your effectiveness?

Bob Kulhan

Being physical. Being physical really does boost my effectiveness, when I can get into, I call it, fighting shape, which is not like it used to be or as it felt. It’s more like okay. I’m physically active. I can run a little bit. I’ve got endurance. And that time, whether it’s in a gym or on a bike or something like that, or even… I studied Brazilian jujitsu for a few years, rolling around on the mat. It’s a great way to just wash everything else away and refocus.
And that’s actually like being on stage as well. You have to be present. You have to be there. The difference between that and being in the gym is that you can visualize and strategize and think and brainstorm when you’re on a treadmill or on a bike, versus when you’re rolling around in jujitsu, that’s much more like an improv scene. If you’re not present in that, you’re going to get hurt or hurt somebody. That shouldn’t be like an improv scene, though.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood. Okay. And would you say there’s a particular piece from your teaching, your training that really seems to resonate and get people kind of nodding their heads and saying “Oh, yes, this guy is brilliant”? Any Bob originals that really seem to be hitting the mark?

Bob Kulhan

You mean like quotes?

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah.

Bob Kulhan

“There’s more than one way to hit a piñata” seems to resonate with a lot of people, especially when it comes to creativity and collaboration. Leadership, the quote I have is “I’m all for grassroots efforts. They’re very real. However, grass will not grow if somebody is standing on it. So where are you standing?”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, good. Thank you. And what would you say is the best way for folks to contact you, if folks want to learn more or touch base?

Bob Kulhan

Contact Business Improv. That’s my company. Or you can go to @kulhan, my last name, on Twitter. Buy the book, Getting to “Yes And.”

Pete Mockaitis

There you go. Releasing shortly. Coming out very soon.

Bob Kulhan

Yeah. January 24th. Stanford University Press. Getting to “Yes And.”

Pete Mockaitis

Very cool. And would you say you have a final challenge or a call to action you’d like to issue those seeking to be more awesome at their jobs?

Bob Kulhan

Yes. Try. Just simply try. Create places in which you can fail a little bit. Experiment. Learn. Grow. Evolve as leaders. Create that area and that opportunity. You could do it for yourself, and figure out how you coul do it for one or two other people around you when the time is right.

Pete Mockaitis

Fantastic. Thank you. Well, Bob, this has been such a treat. I wish you tons of luck with the book launch and all that you’re up to. This has been a blast. And keep on trucking.

Bob Kulhan

Yeah! Woo woo! The pleasure is mine. I appreciate it. It’s great chatting with you.

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The Gold Nugget

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