This post is part of our Monthly-ish Tips series.

A trust skill-builder that could be mistaken for a drinking game

Many of you know I’m a fan of improv. A lot of the warm-up games I’ve learned from taking improv comedy classes with friend and colleague Shawn Westfall could be written off by the corporate crowd as silly or meaningless. But the positive reaction I once-again got recently from the engineers and scientists who tried one of them out in a mastery-level workshop of mine has prompted me to take the risk to share it with you here.

First, here’s why practicing improv is important (and isn’t an oxymoron). There is no escaping those moments of truth that we all face when the unexpected occurs. (If you want a humorous reminder of this, read about a guy who accidentally said “I love you” when hanging up the phone with his client.) Ironically, these unpredictable and stressful moments are some of your best opportunities to dramatically increase your trustworthiness—provided you are adept at improvising in a way that brings your best self forward.

Practicing improvisation may sound like an oxymoron, but practice is exactly how professional improvisational comedy performers become so skilled at their craft. In rehearsal, they make up scenes over and over with new scenarios and relationships that are completely invented on the spot. When it’s show time, and they collect audience suggestion to make new scenes, they are fully prepared to be responsive, collaborative, and authentic. They have rehearsed principles rather than practicing lines. Trust-building is a lot like that, too.

Now, here’s the promised practice to bridge the two worlds of improv comedy and corporate relationships. It’s called Zip-Zap-Zop. It could easily be mistaken for a drinking game because of (1) its name, (2) its simplicity, and (3) the laughter that typically erupts when it’s played. It’s what Shawn routinely uses as a warm-up for his improv comedy classes.

Assemble a (sober) group—I recommend between 10 and 20 people—and stand in a circle such that each person can easily see every other person. One person starts by randomly pointing to—and making eye contact with—someone else in the circle and says, “Zip.” That person (the one on the receiving end of Zip) randomly points to someone else, making eye contact, and says “Zap.” That person randomly points to someone else, making eye contact, and says, “Zop.” Then the Zop receiver randomly points to someone else, making eye contact, and starts again with “Zip.” And so it goes. Continue for a few minutes, and for sure long enough that you see how the group responds when someone (inevitably) screws up the pattern.

You can take it up a notch on the next round with two important changes. First, encourage the group to go as fast as possible, which helps everyone respond rather than overthink. Then, part-way through have someone unexpectedly say a color instead of Zip, Zap, or Zop. The blander the color the better; the point is not to be clever, but to be fast. See what happens—do others follow? Trip up and get stuck? Insist on zipping/zapping/zopping? Get innovative and add other words/themes into the mix?

Here are three of my favorite takeaways (which are part of the debriefing at the end of the exercise):

  • It’s hard to be anything but truly present when you’re playing. And that’s exactly the point. When you’re not Zipping, Zapping, or Zopping, you’re on high alert wondering when you’re going to be “it.” Trading distractions for real focus is precisely what’s needed for our clients to have the experience of being fully heard, understood, and valued by us.
  • Versatility and authenticity beat overthinking. This improv warm-up gives us a great opportunity to observe and experience how we (the SMEs and polished professionals) tend to routinely overthink instead of being in the moment. On a professional improv comedy stage, it’s the quick and unexpected answers—not clever jokes—that make the magic happen. And while the explicit aim of a professional relationship is not to make others laugh, there is magic in making a real and personal connection. Rehearsed lines and PowerPoint decks are not our friends in this regard.
  • Mistakes are inevitable; how you handle them reveals your true character. There’s nothing logical about mistake-making as a relationship-builder. Enter the paradoxes of human relationships to help make sense of it all. Your screw-ups are an opportunity for you to become accessible and real—to make known how you handle yourself and who you choose to be in a moment of truth. When you’re practicing improv and you say Zop instead of Zap, do you quickly laugh it off and get refocused on the goal? Or do you get stuck in your own high self-orientation?

If you made it this far, I’m hoping you see the gems in the improv warm-up that could be mistaken for a drinking game. So many great trust lessons come from unexpected places.

This practice was originally shared on the Blog as the March 2012 Improv Tip of the Month. Special shout-out to Barry Edwards for your contribution.

Make It Real

This week, don’t overthink it; just try it. Kick off your team meeting with a round of Zip-Zap-Zop, and close it with a bonus speed round at the end. What do you learn? How does it impact the quality and dynamic of your meeting?

Learn More


Download our free e-Book on Improving Consulting, or brush up on all five trust skills (improvise is one of them) in Chapter 5 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).