Loading Events

« All Events

  • This event has passed.

Opening Keynote General Session: Starting at Yes: Empathy, Agreement, and Collaboration for Progress

October 2, 2023 @ 9:50 am - 11:15 am

Starting at ‘no’ and getting stuck is easy, so how do we find paths to ‘yes’? In this keynote address, we’ll explore why organizations and communities so easily find themselves mired in conflict and what unique insights and lessons improv theater has to offer in helping make the shift toward building connections and collaboration. Beyond theory, we’ll also review and rehearse concrete ways you can help the groups you work with move out of habitual conflict and lean into the curiosity, empathy, and bravery required for agreement and change.

John Windmueller, Washington Improv Theater


“Being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

Improv core competencies and how they can make you a better listener:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity


  • Fear-based responses to listening were great for our evolutionary conditions, but not so much at work or in interpersonal relationships. What causes us to flee from listening?
    • Planning what you are going to say in response
    • Human brain is poorly suited for listening and learning
      • Cognitive dissonance is the most challenging trait to deal with when seeking to resolve conflict. Human beings don’t just tend to not learn from new evidence, but double down and believe contrary evidence even more. Research suggests no relationship between intelligence and cognitive dissonance. 
      • Confirmation bias, where we look for evidence that confirms what we already believe. When you’re listening and formulating your own response, you’re listening only for cues that go with your own assumptions.

Big point #1: Listen down to the last word. When you’re in an important conversation and trying to understand what a client needs or you are trying to persuade someone, you must cut out your own voice in your head. 

  • Don’t wait until you’re in a difficult or important conversation: practice better listening with easy conversations with friends or loved ones frequently. When you hear someone else’s voice, quiet your own inner voice and listen to what the other person is saying down to their last word.
  • Don’t be afraid of taking too long to respond; most cultures consider silence to be due consideration. Professional, international negotiators are often very comfortable with silence.
  • Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong word. Listening down to the last word best prepares you to be able to respond. When you most quickly snap out of listening, the moment someone says something to you that you think is wrong (factually or ideology), stop correcting them in your mind – cut it out and listen down to the last word.
  • The first goal in negotiation is to get the other party to say “that’s right” – they understand the underlying interest, and maybe the emotions behind your position.
    • The FBI’s standard operating procedure for negotiation uses a staircase model. The top of the staircase is behavior change – the goal. Steps 1 and 2 are “active listening” and “empathy.” 
    • In sales, often the proposal that is accepted is the one that is best able to describe the situation the potential customer is facing. 


Collaboration is tough: 

  • The human brain struggles with pivoting. Improv players aren’t 8 lines ahead – the best improv comes when you have no idea what the other person is going to say. 
  • Beginner improvisers are terrified of starting to talk, but frequently don’t know when to stop talking – an unconscious bias toward feeling like you are in control as long as you are talking.

Preparation doesn’t necessarily make for good collaboration, and listening through the lens of our individual agenda can lead to conflict.

Big point #2: Bring a brick, not a cathedral. Go into conversations with an openness to learning and persuasion. Be curious. Put separate proposals aside and come up with one collaboratively.


Creativity is a skill – not a trait. Traits are your height or eye color; you can disguise them. Creativity is learned, something you can get better at, and no one is born with an inherent talent. 

The fundamental principle of improv is “yes, and.” This often takes care of the blank page (or stage) – instead of starting with a beginning and end, you start with a spark. Ideas developed in a group tend to be more coherent and connected, as opposed to brainstorms. 

Big point #3: Build in listening by leaning into “yes, and.” Make it your goal to make sure everyone feels heard. Change requires bravery. Shifts can happen, but they are frightening. Find hope, optimism, and what’s worked before – and add to them.

Improv doesn’t teach you to say yes to everything: there is no meaningful yes without consent. 


October 2, 2023
9:50 am - 11:15 am
Event Category:
Event Tags: