With a background in business, theatre, improvisation and psychology, Philippa Waller, founder of 4D Human Being, is a big believer in Shakespeare’s adage, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
And in her upcoming TEDx Glasgow talk on June 1 she explores the idea that we are all a part of this performance of ‘life’ – which is not a pre-planned script, but an enormous improvised scene.
If we as humans are the sum of our interactions, she says, then our power lies in being fluid and creative enough to take what we are “given” by others and build on the dynamic in a different way. In this way, we can consciously shape our interactions – and therefore our life. In this thought-provoking everywoman podcast, Philippa discusses why it’s better to be an improviser than a “stand up”, how the idea of certainties may be holding you back in life…and why you should always try to get your dry cleaner to smile at you.
Anna: Hello, and welcome to the everywoman podcast. I’m Anna, editor of everywoman, and every month we’ll be bringing you the stories, insights, and opinions of inspiring women in business, on a wide range of topics. Asking the questions you want the answers to, and doubtless prompting some more in the process.
Anna: Today, we’re here to talk about improvisation in your everyday life and business, with CEO of 4D Human Being, Philippa Waller, whose TEDx Glasgow talk, Improvising Mindset: How Every Connection and Interaction Shapes Your Reality, is on the 1st of June.
Anna: We’re delighted to welcome Philippa to the studio today. Philippa, welcome.
Philippa Waller: Thank you very much, lovely to be here.
Anna: The title of your TEDx Talk, as we must call it, is The Improvising Mindset: How Every Connection and Interaction Shapes Reality. Let’s start with this idea of improvisation and the perception of improvisation, because it is something that if you’re not an actor, you might not be familiar with.
Philippa Waller: Yes, indeed. In fact, maybe even some actors would try to avoid it as well. That was certainly my experience when I was an actor. Improvising, it is the art of stepping onto a stage or into a space, and creating a scene together. No script. People might have seen comedy improvisation on programmes like Whose Line Is It Anyway? I was part of a troupe called The Spontaneity Shop, years ago. I was a reluctant, initially really reluctant, I was cooled by an ex-drama school teacher to go along and do a class in improv. Actually, quite a few actors don’t love it, because actors like a script. You know who you are, where you are, and you know what the other person is about to say to you, which is really nice in life, but as an improviser, you don’t. Actually, that’s an amazing toolkit and skill to have ultimately.
Philippa Waller: I was reluctant, but I went along. It was taught in such a different way and really put me in a good state. It was all about reducing anxiety. I stayed with it. I became part of the troupe. We travelled all over the world doing comedy improv, and it led to storytelling and writing. It was a real game-changer for me.
Anna: Obviously, all of this is going into your TED Talk, which you’ll do a TEDx Talk.
Philippa Waller: Yes, TEDx Glasgow.
Anna: TEDx Glasgow, on the 1st of June, under the theme Rethink. Tell me, how did that come about? How are you conveying this in the TED Talk?
Philippa Waller: It came about through some work I was doing with a client actually, using improv for senior leadership teams, and how to … Really, it’s the behavioural tool for systems thinking, to put it in its grand speak, but as a leader, how can we actually step in and being agile, and fluid, and have each other’s backs? All those wonderful skills that improvisers have, how can we apply that to leadership teams and their teams?
Philippa Waller: I was doing a bit of work there, and a wonderful woman, Jean Kerr, I’ll say her name because she’s also doing a TEDx Talk at Glasgow. She loved what I was doing there, and she spoke to her friend at TEDx, Pauline, who loved the idea. Actually, what was really interesting about it, they’ve been amazing at TEDx. I think initially they were like, “What is this?” We had a couple of meetings with them.
Philippa Waller: The theme is Rethink, and obviously from my perspective, improvising in rethinking how we interact every day, how we respond to what life throws us. I think it was quite an edgy topic for them to bring in. That word is quite, it can be quite edgy, I suppose, to some people.
Philippa Waller: Yeah, improvisation. They really wanted to take a risk and do something different. Even have potentially some interaction with the audience, which as I say that, I’m thinking, “People won’t come.” I never, never pull anybody up on stage, it’s all about turning to the person next to you and having a bit of a play, getting into a play state.
Philippa Waller: Really, it was also rethinking what could we do with a TEDx Talk. It doesn’t have to be someone talking at you for 13, 18 minutes. Actually, we could literally be improvising, in terms of we’re all going to be involved in this. It really is a rethink on so many levels, so I really applaud them for going out on a limb.
Anna: Walking the walk.
Philippa Waller: Walking the walk, yeah. I’m really looking forward to it.
Anna: I bet.
Philippa Waller: I’m super excited.
Anna: I wanted to talk about the game changer for you, taking this idea of improvisation and then applying it to a wider context. In your talk, I don’t want to give too much away, but you set the scene with an anecdote about how you have a mission to get the most miserable dry cleaner in London to basically smile you. It’s often so that great wisdom starts with these kind of small happenings. Tell me about how this brought improvisation into a sort of a clarity for you, to use as a life tool, rather than just a stagecraft.
Philippa Waller: Yeah, actually, what I’m going to do, I’m going to wind back slightly, because I was in an improv troupe, as I said, and I was working with my friend and writing partner, Deborah Francis White, and we were lucky enough or talented enough, I don’t know, or both, to be …
Anna: Obviously, talented.
Philippa Waller: And Monica Henderson also, at the time, who’s a very successful writer now in the states. We were writing for Hollywood, couldn’t get hired in London, don’t ask me, but we were writing in Hollywood. What we found, going around the studios, was that the studio executives really were looking for a reason to not send your script upstairs. They were just inundated with scripts. Everyone’s writing a script in Hollywood.
Philippa Waller: We worked out if we took our improv skills into those meetings, and started saying, “Yes, and,” which we’ll talk about in a minute, started to build with the studio executives, started to make them feel like they were part of creating the story, suddenly they were much more invested and our script went upstairs. We sold our first script in Hollywood.
Philippa Waller: That was the beginning of understanding how to use improv in life if you like. I suppose the difference between that and the dry cleaner story was we started to use it as a relationship builder, to get something from it. There was an end goal there. Whereas the story about the dry cleaner, I went into the dry cleaner’s. I had just moved to a new flat in North London. Took my clothes in, and he was so miserable. I came out, and the person who was with me said, “We’re never going back there again. We’re not giving him your money.” I thought, “No, actually hang on. There’s something interesting here. I don’t necessarily have to accept that. I could just change this. Not because there’s anything in it for me, there’s other dry cleaners all over London, but actually just to see if I can change the experience for myself and for the dry cleaner.”
Philippa Waller: It took a while. It did take a long time.
Anna: He still remembers you, I’m sure.
Philippa Waller: I’m sure. Actually, I think he probably does, because after a while, our relationship definitely, nothing weird or anything, but he definitely knew who I was. He would make a point of being really sort of jolly when I went in. To the point where, I say in the Talk, he was actually cellophane wrapping my clothes by the end of it. I could see other customers sort of slightly being thrown out onto the wet pavement, but I was there with my sort of rather special package.
Philippa Waller: It took some time, but I think for me, the key thing about the dry cleaner story is you can use improv not for gain, not to sort of manipulate, actually just to change the experience. To not get, but to give.
Anna: Let’s talk about the rules of improv. With the dry cleaner, who has now become …
Philippa Waller: A very special character in my life.
Anna: A very special character in your life. Most people would take his, not even reaction, his sort of manner, as the final bit, but you talk a lot about how in improvisation, everything is an offer. For the people listening, who might have no idea about the rules of improv and how it works, talk me through that a little bit.
Philippa Waller: Yes. There are various rules in improv. I won’t go into all of them now, because I unpack those in the Talk. One of the key ones is that everything is an offer. As an improviser, what you learn is as you step on stage with your fellow improviser on the team, even if they’re just standing there blankly staring at you, you’ve got to create something. Something’s got to happen. You have to take the blank stare as the offer. We would always joke about if a teammate just suddenly froze and didn’t know what to say, you might say something like, “That’s really nice Bob, 20 years of marriage and you can’t even speak to me.” You start to use it because it’s all you’ve got.
Philippa Waller: You can think about offers in life as anything, an event, the way somebody is behind a coffee counter, a situation that arises if you like. Everything that happens is an offer. I think what’s really interesting about that, as well, is that we can get quite focused on the main sort of tasks and doings of our life. I sort of often think about if you’re identified with being a really charitable, lovely person, and you’re on your way to work on a soup kitchen, and that’s your narrative. That’s the scene that you’re creating for the day, and that’s who you are, but on the way there, somebody’s broken down on the side of the road and in distress. You just get annoyed with them and sort of flick your hand at them and sort of be annoyed with them, because they’re blocking your path. Actually, that is also part of your narrative now. You’re not just the charity soup kitchen worker. You just had an offer right there, and actually, you responded in a way that probably, if you were more conscious of it, that wouldn’t necessarily be who you wanted to be in that moment.
Philippa Waller: That’s not an aberration. You’re not just the soup kitchen charity worker, you are also the person who’s just been angry with the person who’s broken down on the side of the road. If you like, everything is an offer.
Anna: We’re pretty much making choices in every minute of our lives. I was going to say, what does that do in terms of shifting our mindset? Obviously, I think it would make us much more empowered. Can you unpack that a little bit?
Philippa Waller: I think we are making choices, although there’s a whole sort of deep and existential debate about free will there. We are making choices, it’s just a lot of them might be unconscious. Even the clothes you put on in the morning, you may think that you’re not thinking about it, but somewhere along the line, because of your experience, that is a choice. If you turn up to work in a very short skirt and showing your legs, whether you really thought about that in the morning or not, that was a choice. That is then your offer to the world if you like. We are making choices all the time.
Anna: I suppose that for a lot of people, the mindset is that we can make our own choices perhaps, but we can’t make the choices of other people. We put ourselves in quite a sort of weakened position, by saying, maybe not consciously, but, “This is being done to us,” or, “They have the power.” You talk about how we’re co-creating ourselves and our experiences in every moment. I suppose my question to you is how much power do we actually have to influence outcomes?
Philippa Waller: It’s such a good question. I suppose, my take on that is that we like the idea of certainty. We’re talking a lot, at the moment, about change, and uncertainty, and how sort of discombobulating it is. We like our certainty. We don’t necessarily like the idea that it’s all a bit random and we haven’t got that much control over it.
Philippa Waller: Actually, what we do have control over, I think, are two things. One is the way that we interact with other people will change the dynamic of that experience. We know that from relationships. If your partner annoys you and you go into the fight, that’s what you’ve got. That’s what you’re creating for the day. My partner, years ago, said to me one morning, I woke up really grumpy, I’m not a morning person, I woke up really grumpy and I was just in a sort of … Just the body, it was in charge of my thinking and my mouth. He just stopped me and he just said, “What do you want to create today?” It’s a really good question.
Philippa Waller: We have that co-creation if you like. We have some influence over what we create with each other. We know that, don’t we? If we go into a coffee shop and someone’s rude to us, that will sort of stay with us for the day. If we go into a coffee shop and somebody gives us the extra bit of money for the coffee, that we didn’t have, that will stay with us as well, in a totally different way. We’ve got that.
Philippa Waller: The second thing, which is terrible things happen in life. That can sort of be from world wars to individual tragedies. What we do have is the choice of how we meet those things. We can’t necessarily change those events. There’s a Viktor Frankl quote that’s attributed to him, which is, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, lies our choice. In our choice, lies our growth and our freedom.” He was writing from a concentration camp in the Second World War. He was talking about people meeting the most horrific of circumstances and making a choice of how they responded. Even at that point, still choosing to find meaning that supported them in some way. When people lost meaning, when people felt they had no choice left, he noticed that was usually the demise of that individual. That’s a very extreme example, but how do we meet those different circumstances?
Anna: I think the sort of words that keep coming up, and they’re very powerful, is dynamic, you talk a lot about dynamic. I think it’s important, perhaps, for us to realise that we are in a dynamic. We’re kind of fooling ourselves really, aren’t we, if we think there are certainties. In a sense, in order for improv to become a life tool, we need to get rid of expectations, would you agree?
Philippa Waller: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s both wonderful and very difficult, isn’t it? Because that’s right. If you think about how you expect people to behave, or how you expect your life to turn out, and then it doesn’t quite work like that. For most people, for most people, that is the case. It certainly doesn’t quite look like maybe we’d planned, and people don’t always give us what we want. We used to have a saying as actors, that the audience never give you what you want. If we’ve got expectations, then we are invariably disappointed.
Philippa Waller: We can probably particularly resonate with this in partnerships. The Gottman Institute, who do loads of research around partnerships, they talk about 69% of the arguments that you have with your partner are the same ones repeated, and repeated, and repeated.
Anna: The repeated patterns.
Philippa Waller: They are never going away. They are never going away because you’re set in your pattern. We might as well find a different way to be with them.
Anna: How would you do that? I’m going to ask for some practical advice. You’re having a repeated, you’re in a repeated interaction, if you like. Let’s take it to a work context, with maybe a difficult colleague, or a toxic boss, or something like that. Same thing’s getting repeated, repeated, repeated, what do you do to take the power back?
Philippa Waller: It’s a really good question. Some of this goes right back to, of course, our childhood. We have learnt relationship dynamics from being a child, from being brought up. We’ve learnt what gets us love. We’ve learnt how to behave to stay connected, and we’ve also, through our conditioning, we’ve also got triggers. We’ve got things that really sort of irritate us. Then we find ourselves at work, and then we’ve got a new boss, and suddenly they are absolutely tapping into our most sort of vulnerable sensitive triggers, and we can’t stand our new boss.
Philippa Waller: Actually, it’s not just about the boss. It goes back to the word dynamic, that you are now in a dynamic. If you keep doing the same thing and they keep doing the same thing, because of your past, you’re just in a stalemate. Actually, what you can do, you can change, have a very small change for yourself in how you communicate. That’s particularly what we do with our organisation. It might be that actually, you’ve got quite a sort of scattered, sort of brainstormy idea generating way of thinking and of communicating. It’s absolutely classic. Then people tend to say, “Me and my boss don’t get on.” Actually, it’s about communication style and thinking style. You could change one thing. You could start talking in a much more ordered way, “There are three things that I want to talk to you about.” It might be that your boss needs reassurance, but you don’t think that because he or she is your boss.
Philippa Waller: It’s taking a moment to look at, “What’s going on in this dynamic? What does this relationship need?” Not, “What do I expect them to do?” But, “What does this relationship need? What can I do to put some of that in the mix?”
Anna: Is it also not so much about what you want? People get very fixed, don’t they? It’s back to expectations.
Philippa Waller: Totally.
Anna: That sort of rigid, “This is what I want.”
Philippa Waller: Yeah, totally. Certainly, working in organisations, the way that we work in organisations usually is there’s an idea or there’s a task, and then we’ll get the people in to fulfil that task. Of course, with improvisation, it’s the complete reverse. We’ve got no idea what the product is. We’ve got no idea what the idea is going to look like. All we’ve got is a group of people who are going to work and play together to see what happens. You’ve got complete extreme ends there.
Philippa Waller: There’s something about bringing some of that improvising mindset more into the business world, to be able to adapt much more quickly, to be much more fluid, much more agile. What improvisers know is that they can have an idea, they can make that offer, but if something else comes back that shifts it somewhere else, you can drop your offer, knowing that you have a limitless creativity. Something else will come, because it’s co-creation, it’s not just you on your own. That’s the difference for me, between standup and improv.
Philippa Waller: People used to say to me all the time, and I said I was an improviser, they said, “Oh, you do standup.” I was like, “No, I really don’t. God no, I don’t do standup.” Standup is a solo game, and actually it’s usually very, very scripted, very, very tightly scripted. Whereas improve is a team game. Someone’s always got your back, and there’s no script. They are very, very different mediums.
Anna: I’m not a standup.
Philippa Waller: Not a stand-up, people.
Anna: Even as you’re talking about it, it’s got that real sense of creativity around it, which all forward-thinking businesses need to develop.
Philippa Waller: Absolutely. Think about offers that you might miss. I mean there’s some very well known examples, of course. Viagra is one of them. I don’t know if you know that example, but that was actually a clinical drug test for, I think it was for blood pressure, it sounds about right, doesn’t it, when you think about it. There was a side effect that everyone was going, “Oh my goodness, this is going completely wrong. We’ll have to stop this clinical trial.”
Philippa Waller: At the time, the company who were doing the clinical trials were in very crowded offices. They actually, since then, they moved out into much more spacious offices, which actually they felt, in a way, for creativity, had a bit of a downside. They were in these very packed, busy offices in Kent, and it meant that the departments were often in the kitchen together or by the water cooler. It literally was a water cooler moment, where somebody from a different department was being told at the water cooler, by someone on this clinical trial, “Oh my goodness, you’ll never guess what’s happening on this clinical trial. All the men are reporting back that they are having positive effects.” They started a conversation, and actually, it became an innovation. It made the company millions, and millions, and millions of pounds. That was an offer, rather than a problem.
Anna: Moving slightly sideways, but you talk about how embracing failure is an important part of improvisation. I mean in one sense, the clinical trial is not doing what it wants, it’s a failure.
Philippa Waller: It’s a failure, right.
Anna: But, like you say, it got embraced and then it turned into a success. It does seem counterintuitive to what we’re normally told. I suppose, for me, it would be good to know why failure is important, how does it free us up? How do we fail well?
Philippa Waller: I know, and my first thought there is sort of right to the heart and the gut of my absolute sort of passion for perhaps what’s needed more in our education. I’m doing a second Masters now, and I can feel myself getting caught right back in waiting for my paper to come back with the grade on it. I’m very conscious of that system, and still, the anxiety is there. If you think about for years and years as children, at that very, very susceptible age, when our brains are very plastic, they’re still forming, every day we are bedding in the message of you’ll either get a tic or a cross. You’ll either be right, or you’ll fail. That’s really embedded in us.
Philippa Waller: Whereas actually, if we try to be right all the time, I say this to people a lot, in terms of communication skills or in organisations, if your goal is to be right, you have set yourself up for disappointment. You really have. Whereas if your goal is to be curious, or to be creative, or to engage people, actually failure, it doesn’t even mean anything anymore. In a wider context, what is failure? I mean it’s all process.
Philippa Waller: There’s that famous parable, isn’t there? Who knows what’s good, what’s bad? The farmer buys a horse, the horse escapes, but then he brings back 20 horses. Now they’ve got 20 horses. Then the son rides the horse, he breaks his leg, oh that’s bad. Then the military comes to recruit people for a war, and they can’t take the son. That’s good. That sort of it’s good, it’s bad idea, that actually you don’t know what something’s going to lead to. There’s a lot of research now, even around post-traumatic growth. Even sort of the most difficult things that happen to us can lead to a completely different way of living. It is a real mindset.
Philippa Waller: Certainly, from an improviser’s perspective, the mistakes that your team members make on stage are often the absolute gems. They’re the things the audience will remember much more than the sort of clever, slightly sort of planning as you go. Somebody says someone’s name wrong or something, and suddenly you’ve got the long lost twin. You know what I mean? Suddenly, there’s something very fresh happening.
Anna: Again, I keep coming back to expectations, and I know we’ve discussed that, but again, for me, failure, if an expectation is the product, you almost have to let go of it, don’t you? You cannot fail if you don’t have any expectations. What do we need instead of expectations?
Philippa Waller: I suppose there’s a balance here, isn’t there? I suppose it’s the idea of holding something like … The Eastern philosophies would talk about detached detachment. There is a notion, there’s a will, there’s a want, there’s a movement forward, there’s an intentionality. We are evolving beings. We are driven to evolve. That is what we are. That’s definitely important. It’s not about, “Oh well, let’s just all give up.” That’s driving us and moving us all the time to create, to procreate. The most fundamental form of creativity is procreation.
Philippa Waller: It’s also about allowing some space to be surprised. I went for a walk the other day, and I very rarely have space in my diary. I wish I had more, but I don’t. I happened to have a few hours blocked out. I took my dog for a walk, and he ran up to these other dogs. There were two women walking these other dogs. They suddenly said, “Oh, who’s this dog?” I went, “Oh, that’s my dog.” I went up and talked to them, and we fell into conversation. As we walked around this beautiful walk, we got to this valley, and one of the women, it had been a very nice conversation, said to me, “Do you want to come in for a cup of tea? I live in that house.” She pointed down to this sort of idyllic farmhouse in the valley. This sort of sunny, green, glory. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” We had this amazing conversation. Found out that we had quite a bit in common from our past, and we switched numbers.
Philippa Waller: That would never have happened usually. Usually, everything is very tightly scheduled. If we don’t have any space, and it’s the same in life, if we don’t allow for something else, we’re just contracted down into either the same thing again and again, or something that we didn’t really want.
Anna: All those certainties that aren’t really certain.
Philippa Waller: Yeah.
Anna: I feel like space might be an upcoming podcast.
Philippa Waller: Oh my goodness, that is my absolute …
Anna: How to create space.
Philippa Waller: Yeah, how to create space.
Anna: It’s amazing, isn’t it? Even as you open it up and sort of get support, I’ve got a PA now and she’s amazing, you open up that space.
Philippa Waller: Yeah, and it gets filled.
Anna: It just gets filled, doesn’t it? It just pours in, doesn’t it? I know, that is an ongoing piece of self-coaching there.
Philippa Waller: Absolutely.
Anna: We’ll come back to space, as I said, possibly in another podcast. There are lots of aspects that we’ve drawn in here, we’ve been talking today. Reality, as interactions, it’s a big philosophical ask on an every …
Philippa Waller: I like a big philosophical ask Anna.
Anna: Who doesn’t love a big philosophical ask? Sometimes you need to find a way to chunk it down. For your everyday interactions, your everyday life, how do we not get overwhelmed by that? How best do we make this an everyday tool? What’s the takeaway?
Philippa Waller: It is a good question. I suppose two things spring to mind. As somebody who also has recently moved to a somewhat more remote cottage with my dog, that we do need time out, of course we do. This isn’t about constantly, constantly interacting. I mean we are wired for connection. We know that now. There’s some wonderful research by a man called Matthew Lieberman, who wrote a book called Social, we know that connection is so important for us as human beings. There’s studies going on a lot at the moment, around loneliness, and particularly with an ageing population, although not just an ageing population.
Philippa Waller: The other thing that springs to mind is you talk about that idea of it being overwhelming, and I suppose if I flip that and I look at how overwhelmed we are with getting stuff done, and task, and achieving things, getting things, we’ve got a mental health crisis at the moment. We’re clearly doing something wrong. We clearly haven’t quite worked it out. We’ve got more loneliness being reported, anti-depressant prescriptions, than ever before.
Philippa Waller: Actually, I wonder if rather than the idea of realities, interactions, being overwhelming, it might be the balance to getting stuff done, is reality. It’s just exhausting.
Anna: Yeah, absolutely. We need a reboot basically.
Philippa Waller: Yeah, we need a reboot. We really need a reboot. We definitely need a reboot.
Anna: I definitely need a reboot.
Philippa Waller: Yeah, we do, we need a reboot and a rebalance.
Anna: If you want to reboot, Philippa’s Ted Talk is out on the 1st of June. The link will be alongside this podcast, so you can tune in and get some more inspiration on how to add improvisation and its amazing power to your life.
Anna: All that leaves me to say is thank you for coming in today Philippa.
Philippa Waller: Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure.
Anna: Absolutely, it’s been our pleasure too.
Anna: Thank you all for joining us as well, on this everywoman podcast. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you next time. Don’t forget in the meantime, there’s a wealth of information, interest, and further talking points on the everywomanNetwork, and an app, if you want to access on the move. Until we meet again, have a great day and keep on living your best life.