Jason Higa, University of Hawai'i-Manoa
Throughout my academic advising career, I have never had any issues getting training (or finding information) on campus policies, procedures, degree requirements, course curriculums, campus resources, and the like, but I realized, what good is all that training and information if I am unable to effectively communicate with my students? Like many advisors, I was not formally trained on how to communicate or interact with students, I was just expected to have that skill or to learn it on the job. I tried reading books, articles, and watching YouTube videos on how to become an effective communicator, but I still felt like I was not connecting with my students. I finally decided that I needed to try something completely out of the box, so I enrolled myself in a series of improv comedy courses.
You might be asking yourself, what is improv and what does it have to do with communication? “Improvisation, or improv, is a form of live theatre in which the plot, characters and dialogue of a game, scene or story are made up in the moment” (The Hideout Theatre, n.d.). As an improviser, you are taught to remain in the moment and to draw upon your previously developed knowledge and skills in order to provide input to a scene or story. A common misconception about improv is that it is unstructured or chaotic; however, there are actually many rules to improv that prevent chaos from ensuing. When I advise students, I focus on three of those rules (listen to every detail, avoid saying no, and find the booyah), which have vastly improved my communication skills, and I hope that they can improve yours as well.
Rule #1: Listen to Every Detail
One of the keys to producing a good scene or story in improv is to listen to every detail that your partner is saying, from the very first word to the very last word. A good example of this is a warm up game called Word Association. In Word Association everyone joins a circle and Person 1 will start off the game with a word. Based on that word, Person 2 will say a different word that they believe is associated with Person 1’s word. Then, Person 3 will say another word that they believe is associated with Person 1 and 2’s word, and so on and so forth. Eventually a theme will illuminate from the contributed words.
Example 1: Word Association
Person 1 says “Orange”
Person 2 says “Peach”
Person 3 says “Apple”
Person 4 says “Banana”
As you can see in Example 1, when everyone is listening and paying attention, an obvious theme surfaces (in this example, fruits), but what would happen if someone started thinking about what they were going to say next instead of listening to every detail?
Example 2: Word Association
Person 1 says “Orange”
Person 2 says “Peach”
Person 3 says “Red”
Person 4 says “Banana”
In Example 2, you can see that Person 4 was not listening to every detail. Yes, orange and peach could be considered fruits, but they are also colors. When Person 3 says “red,” that changes the entire theme. When conversing with students, advisors sometimes have a tendency to think about what they are going to say next, or attempt to multitask, instead of being in the moment and listening to every word their students are saying. This often results in advisors missing important content and subtexts that are being expressed by their students. It can also give students the perception that their advisors are making suggestions without taking what they have expressed into consideration and can potentially lead to misunderstandings, misdirection, and conflict (Kulhan, 2017).
As important as listening is, it is only half the battle of effective communication. The next step is to be able to talk to students in a way that engages them and builds rapport, but how do we do that?
Rule #2: Avoid Saying No (At Least in the Beginning of the Appointment)
When I say “avoid saying no,” that does not mean that you should never say no, but there is definitely a right (and a wrong) time and a place to say it. The reason we as advisors should avoid saying no, at least at the beginning of our appointments, is because the word no kills a conversation. If we say no too early in the appointment, the student will feel rejected and foolish, which will make them become much more defensive and less likely to open up to you.
One of the most important rules in improv is called “yes, and.” “Yes, and” creates an environment where advisors can postpone judgment and increase focus and engagement. In improv, there is a game where you literally say the words “yes” and “and” the whole time, but that is not necessary when you apply it to the real world. The word “yes” implies acceptance and inclusivity. When advisors say “yes” to their students, they are acknowledging that they hear and understand what their students are communicating to them. “And” is a connector that allows advisors to heighten or build on what they said yes to. Advisors can use “and” to input their perspectives and expertise into their students’ ideas. It is important to note that “yes, and” is an “unconditional acceptance of an offer, not thoughtless acceptance of an action” (Kulhan, 2017, p. 44). Once “yes, and” is established, the advisors and students can converge their ideas, and at that point eliminate anything that is unrealistic or a bad idea (this would be an acceptable time to say no). To be perfectly clear, saying “yes, but” is not the same as saying “yes, and.” When you say “yes, but” you are also acknowledging that you hear and understand the student; however, like the word “no,” “but” implies a rejection of an idea, so you are essentially telling the students, “yes, I hear you, but I do not care.”
Now with all of that said, the question becomes how long should advisors “yes, and” our students? To be the most effective, advisors should continue to “yes, and” their students until they find what we call the booyah.
Rule #3: Find the Booyah!
What exactly is the booyah? The booyah is something said or expressed that is unusual, weird, interesting, or stands out. In improv we are constantly listening and using “yes, and” to find the booyah, which ultimately creates the premise and context of the story or scene. When applied to advising, the booyah represents what the student really wants or needs from their advisor: whether it is more information, a person to vent to, or the need for further resources.
An issue that I used to encounter with the booyah, in the advising setting, was after I would find the booyah, I would be afraid to pursue it because I was worried that it may lead to an uncomfortable conversation. However, I learned that those uncomfortable conversations are a small price to pay for the success and well-being of the students. On multiple occasions, I have encountered a booyah where the students said something that seemed odd or out of place. My pursuit of the booyah eventually led me to apply some mental health first aid, asking them if they have ever attempted or thought about committing suicide. After our talk, I would walk the students up to our counseling service (even though some students did not want to go), but the next time I met with those students I could tell that their moods had changed, and they were able to get their academics back on track. It should be noted that the booyah in the advising setting is not always negative. Sometimes the booyah has nothing to do with academics or advising, but by pursuing the booyah, and engaging in fun and interesting conversations with your students, you are building trust, rapport, and gathering information, all of which will be useful in your future appointments.
The rules discussed in this article are not exclusive to advising. They can also be used in everyday conversations, and I would encourage you to practice these rules in your day-to-day lives as much as possible. When you are practicing these rules for the first time, try to:
- Listen to every detail before you speak. Eventually you will build the confidence to be in the moment and trust that you have the knowledge to contribute to the conversation.
- Compare “yes, and” conversations to “yes, but” and “no” conversations. You will begin to notice that “yes, and” conversations are much longer and interesting for you and the person you are conversing with.
- The booyah is the key to great conversations, so when you find it, do not be afraid to go after it.
Lastly, if you ever have a chance to join an improv troupe, do it! The knowledge and the repetition you get from doing improv is second to none.
College of Social Sciences
University of Hawai'i-Manoa
Kulhan, B. (2017). Getting to "Yes And." Stanford University Press.
The Hideout Theatre. (n.d.). What is improv? https://www.hideouttheatre.com/about/what-is-improv/
Cite this article using APA style as: Higa, J. (2022, June). Searching for the booyah: Three rules that will improve your communication skills. Academic Advising Today, 45(2). [insert url here]