Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and managing director of the Potential Project, author of One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness, and an internationally recognized expert at training the mind to be focused. He recently joined Bob Kulhan, founder of the experiential learning consultancy Business Improv, former core faculty member in Chicago’s famed Second City, and author of Getting to “Yes And”: The Art of Business Improv, for a Heleo Conversation on the power of being present.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the complete audio, click on the Soundcloud link below.
Rasmus: What is the link between mindfulness and improv?
Bob: The root of improvisation is being focused and present in the moment. To react to somebody, I have to be aware of what’s being said. I can’t be drifting off into space thinking about what I need to do in the future or what I should have been doing in the past. I have to be right here linked with you.
With that presence comes a high level of awareness. This awareness can manifest itself in a number of different ways. The most obvious is external awareness: you’re catching your environment, your people, the circumstances, language, and you’re reacting and responding to that.
Your ability to be in the moment and connect with other people directly links to improvisation, because it’s the same skillset. We’re using it to make comedy on an improv stage, and you and others are using it to slow the brain down to be present, to understand, to engage.
Rasmus: You write, “Think slow to move fast.” Can you say a bit more about that?
Bob: If you’ve seen great improv, it looks like improvisers are running a thousand miles an hour. In truth, improvisors slow the brain down and make everything very important.
When you practice improvisation, it puts together a set of tenets, rules, and regulations that will force you to slow the brain down. A way to do that is a two-word phrase: “yes, and.” “Yes, and” is the cornerstone of improvisation. “Yes” is unconditional acceptance, “and” is how you react. “And” is the bridge to your thoughts, your passion, your education, your background, your experience.
Focusing on this two-word phrase will force the brain to slow down to be present. We’re trying to slow it down so that you are understanding what’s being said and done in real time. You can also look at nonverbal communication, and play all these different games: what does facial expression mean? Does that relate to subtext? Can I postpone judgment, be in the moment to hear what somebody else is saying, and allow myself to honestly react? All of these brain games can force you to slow down and be present, to be focused and relate to people.
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Why are you so passionate about this, and what are your techniques to slow the brain down to be present in the moment?
Rasmus: I’m passionate about it because it simply made me happier. Presence is one of the biggest predictors of well-being—that’s what got me hooked. Another thing was the fact that it’s much easier to connect with other people. 47% of our time, we’re not present with what we’re doing.
Half the time we’re having a conversation with somebody, our mind is somewhere else. That’s time and opportunity lost. Thinking slow to move fast, that is what mindfulness is about: slowing unnecessary thought processes. We have thousands and thousands of thoughts every day, and most of them are random, irrelevant, and negative. What researchers find is that when we go on autopilot, when we let our mind wander, it ends up going into negativity.
“When you leave a good conversation, how often do you go up to other people and say, ‘That was a good conversation. I’m going to write an email about how good somebody else made me feel.’”
Bob: People often drift to the negative when we have time to think. For example, you get into an argument with somebody, you walk out, stew about it. You’re venting.
Whereas, when you leave a good conversation, how often do you go up to other people and say, “That was a good conversation. I’m going to write an email about how good somebody else made me feel.” We don’t process things that way. More often than not, we share the negative as opposed to the positive. I think that’s a choice that, if you’re cognizant, you could shift.
Rasmus: What would you say to a business leader under heavy pressure? Let’s say he had a board meeting, business is not going well. Somebody comes up to him with yet another challenge. How is he going to be present, say, “Yes, and”?
Bob: The common [misconception] is that “yes, and” is always positive, always building on somebody else’s idea. To be clear, using this phrase is not giving up your own thought. We celebrate diverse perspectives. “Yes” is unconditional acceptance with the goal of understanding what’s being said, and the “and” is how you use it.
When delivering negative messages, somebody who’s under stress can easily fall into the trap of constantly moving, and it’s hard to slow down. Take a deep breath, center yourself physically so that you can engage, receive this information, and then process it and communicate it. “Yes, and” is a great technique for delivering difficult messages that seem positive, because it’s based out of respect. You can say, “Yes, this is really hard, and we’re going to figure our way through it.” You can show signs of optimism, determination, and unflappability.
When somebody is under pressure and stress, how do you convey the need for mindfulness?
Rasmus: Under pressure is not the right time to do it. When you introduce it, has to be in a more calm setting. But it’s better to respond than to react, because when we react, we often end up doing things from subconscious negative behavior and emotions, and it’s not very useful.
A senior vice president of Lego said that, when he came under pressure, he would feel this heat coming up and his mind going narrow. Out of mindfulness, he found this beautiful strategy: to ask questions. Instead of going into reactivity, he will start asking questions so that he wins himself time and really understands what’s going on. That frees up the situation, changes the dynamic, a very simple application of mindfulness. Be present. Notice it’s coming. Relax. Ask questions.
Bob: You mentioned something important: the training. Hopefully, you have the ability to take a couple of minutes and compose yourself, get centered, and then go into the heat of battle as opposed to being blindsided. Either way, though, success comes from the time, effort, and training that you put in.
Rasmus: Mindfulness is definitely a practice, not just a theory. It’s the practice of sitting daily, whether for five minutes or two hours, rewiring that neural network between our ears. How about in improv? Is there a practice? How do you remind yourself when you’re under pressure?
Bob: It’s a much longer game, in improvisation, than a simple response to what somebody gives to you. Practice reacting, adapting. Focus, concentrate. Take the mindfulness elements and visualize going into meetings, who the key players are and what they might bring to the table, especially if you’re going to get resistance or pushback. Start putting your plan of action in place, the leader you want to be moving forward, and understand you don’t have to switch tomorrow and say, “Now I’m mindful. Now I am a great improviser.”
“When I talk with people about mindfulness, the reaction I get often is, ‘I don’t have the time.’ Or, ‘I just can’t stop in the middle of the day and do this.’ My counter is, ‘How important is this to you?’ If it’s important, make the couple of minutes the same way athletes do.”
Rasmus: How do you practice unconditional acceptance? From a neurological point of view, we latch on to anything negative, and we’re like Teflon to anything positive.
Bob: That “yes, and” attitude goes beyond the language. That’s the person that looks for possibility, potential, and positivity, versus the people who look for the negative and reasons why they’re going to fail. There’s a framing of thought that needs to take place in order to be that person.
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Framing of language will influence how you affect other people. It also influences how you think. For example, going to the gym. If you say, “I’m working out,” that somehow seems weird. I’m going to work? But if I’m going to go get healthy, I’m “going to the gym.” That framing ends up putting a perspective on how we start behaving and talking to other people.
Rasmus: Does it always come naturally?
Bob: No, we’re talking about retraining the human brain. I had already been in improvisation for a solid 10 years, and around 2005, I said, “I’m going to make the choice to be a ‘yes and’ person.” I needed reminders. I put post-it notes on the desktop computers and on my landline. I started putting accountability practices in place. I asked the people around me to audit me and give me notes.
After a while, I started catching myself doing it. This is one of the great exercises for mindfulness: slow the brain down so that you can catch your own language. I call it a self-audit. You’re auditing your behavior in real time so that you can make the choice to continue that behavior or change it. That’s how I taught myself to be more of a “yes and” person. Still, it’s going to be a lifelong challenge.
What about you? Have you always been centered, able to understand how to be mindful and present? Is that a skillset that you needed to work out over the course of your career?
Rasmus: You don’t change your behavior and your thinking patterns overnight. I don’t look for improvements within weeks or months. I’m looking at what I will be like in a year, or five or 10 years. I was always naturally fairly centered, but there’s no doubt that many hours of practice have helped me to stay in the eye of the storm.
If I don’t practice for a day or two, I feel that right away. It’s ongoing. The first period you’re deeply inspired and start to practice, that’s where you have strong acceleration of benefit. Many people get hooked for the first month, maybe a year, and then it flattens out a bit. You still need to work for it, but you don’t have that steep curve of feeling the difference by the week. For newcomers, there’s a lot of benefit, and it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes a day.
Bob: When I talk with people about mindfulness, the reaction I get often is, “I don’t have the time.” Or, “I just can’t stop in the middle of the day and do this.” My counter is, “How important is this to you?” If it’s important, make the couple of minutes the same way athletes do. Great athletes, before big games, are not shooting out emails or phone calls. They’re ready to play.
Learn from them. Taking a couple of minutes before a meeting and getting centered can make the biggest difference. 10 minutes is really a small investment.
Rasmus: In your book, you have this image of convergent as opposed to divergent choice. Can you say more about that?
Bob: Absolutely. There’s a model created in the 1960s by J.P. Guilford: divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking [is]: you have this problem, question, challenge. Diverge away from it. How many ideas can you come up with? How much exploration can take place? This is where you fail early, fail often. This is about the number of ideas.
Convergent thinking is where you take this giant mess that happens in divergent thinking and whittle it down. This is where you judge, fine-tune, sort. This is where the Darwinism of ideas takes place, that [only] the best ideas will survive, until you come up with a productive outcome. In divergent thinking, you are postponing judgment, deferring it to the convergent thinking side.
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You can reduce it to the personal. How do you get out of your own way to create? Writing proposals, shooting out emails, or writing books and songs. There’s got to be that point: making a mess, you let it go, you let your voice come out, and then you edit in the second or third draft. A lot of people, though, will blur the line, think it’s faster to edit while you create.
“The Dutch painter Hans Hofmann once said, ‘Eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.’ My experience is, when you sit down and let the mind settle, the things you need to think about naturally arise.”
We liken this to panning for gold. In the 1849 California Gold Rush, if you get one chance to try to grab some gold from a river, would you rather stick your two fingers and a thumb in the river and pinch? Or would you grab a giant saucer and pull out as much as you can?
How would you frame that as it relates to mindfulness and decision-making?
Rasmus: There is a great study coming out of Harvard Medical School. [The researcher] thought that when we have a lot of thinking going on, we would have more creative ideas and solutions. So he took people through some processes where they were to think a lot, and then they were to come up with solutions to very specific problems. He found that the more thoughts they had, the fewer opportunities they saw. The fewer thoughts they’d had, the more opportunities they came up with.
He started putting people through mindfulness practices for 10 minutes before putting them into this exercise, and they completely broke the chart. If we slow down our thinking process, we allow the best things to arise. The Dutch painter Hans Hofmann once said, “Eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” My experience is, when you sit down and let the mind settle, the things you need to think about naturally arise.
Bob: Absolutely. We think we’re good at multitasking. In truth, all we’re doing is diverting attention, and if we focus on one thing at a time, the job’s going to get done that much faster. Sometimes that means not focusing at all. You get great ideas in the shower or washing dishes—you’re not thinking about the problem, necessarily.
Rasmus: Yeah. Creativity most often arises when we go for a walk; second, when we’re driving; third, when we’re taking a shower. You’re spot on.
If you could give one [piece of] advice to any business leader, one thing that they should do differently tomorrow, [what would it be?]
Bob: Make a concerted, deliberate plan to use the language “yes, and.” Then, watch what happens. See how you are affecting [people] when you’re framing your language in a positive way. That affects your intonation, your word choice. Watch what happens when somebody is reacting to you as you’re being present in the moment and using “yes and.”
What would you say?
Rasmus: Two answers: the first is, if you want to be mindful, mindfulness practice is the way to get there. Find a good app, sit for 10 minutes, and try that for two weeks. See what it does. If it works, continue doing it. Almost everybody finds that it’s hugely valuable for their mood.
The other thing? Be here now. Whatever you do, whatever you engage in, be here now.