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You Don’t Learn to Tango by Reading a Book.

The importance of taking risks and doing things that scare you a little.

Do you feel like you can express your true opinion without it being taken the wrong way? Are you a person who hears, feels or sees advice as criticism rather than as a positive contribution? What would life be like if you (and people around you) were able to give and receive critical feedback, both positive and negative without the shackles of taking it personally?

What we’re talking about here is the concept of team psychological safety, a term coined by organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard. She defined “team psychological safety” as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. That’s just a fancy way of saying that you and your team feel safe to be yourselves around each other, uncensored and unedited.

When it comes to learning something new, like how to apply the concept of team psychological safety in my own life, my first approach is to ask a lot of questions, talk at length with another human, ask more questions, poke holes, kick the tires, and ask even more questions. I am fueled by curiosity at how and why something works as much as I am by the need for it to work.

And ultimately, if I am being honest with myself, I am standing in my own way of truly learning.

The way I really learn something viscerally is not by just reading or talking about it, but also by experiencing it first hand. As scary as it is, and as many mistakes as I’ll make, there is nothing that can replace experiencing something. I can think about a topic as much as I want, but until I actually do it, I won’t know it holistically, and I certainly won’t get good at it.

Learning how to gain a sense of psychological safety for yourself and within your team is no exception. Discussions on the topic can only go so far, but at some point it’s necessary to experience the shared vulnerability and shared support that is needed to establish psychological safety.

Enter Improv. From its inception, Improv has been…well, improvised (hence the name). It began in a drama class for immigrant children who didn’t share a common language. How could two children work together on a scene (or anyone, anywhere, doing anything) if they didn’t speak a common language? Improv. That’s how.

In normal life, I am the center of my world, just as you are of yours. This POV is common and makes sense, but it’s easy to get stuck in my head and believe my narratives I have running (both helpful and harmful, true and untrue).

But with Improv, the emphasis is on the other person, not me. How can I best support the other person? How can I better actively listen to them? How can I be more present with them?

There is a lot of self discovery in this process, helping us to see where our strengths and weaknesses are. If we are too self-conscious and worried about looking bad, we won’t help an idea come to fruition and an Improv scene will come to a screeching halt.

When you are in an Improv exercise, there is not much time to think—you have to let go of control and the idea of looking “good,” and instead be present and receptive. (This reality is what gave birth to Yes, And thinking, a central tenet of Improv. Read more on that here.) When you focus more on the other person and less on not looking bad or trying to be funny, you can let go of your nervousness and anxiety and instead be more present while listening for possibilities. Things get really fun once you get comfortable enough to dive fully into a crazy idea, not knowing where it's going to go, but it somehow always turns out spectacular.

Among many things, what I learned from practicing Improv was to feel less embarrassed by my mistakes. I instead learned to reframe my mistakes as opportunities. And when I am not embarrassed, I have a more resilient sense of my own psychological safety. It’s the ego that wants us to look good, and not get embarrassed. When we can let go of our ego, we discover more about others and ourselves, and ultimately feel more safe to be ourselves. We’re more easily able to approach things differently, and when we do so, we get different results. And different results means more openings for personal growth and self-healing, and ultimately a step towards more self-empowerment.

So, whether it be with scheduling an Improv and photo session with me at Hello Gorgeous, or taking a chance on that new business venture you’ve been considering, or finally signing up for those Tango lessons, I encourage you to challenge yourself on occasion. Do things that scare you a little. Things that you feel you might not be ready for yet. It’s the only way to really learn, and to cultivate your own psychological safety.


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