Anyone who has done some amount of air travel will be all too familiar with the destructive power of missed connections. Suddenly, a well-coordinated travel itinerary becomes a cascading, downhill disaster of cancelled reservations, revised schedules, and the best laid plans gone “aft agley.” But these examples are in the extreme, derived from the most compacted, intensive of situations. It should lead us to wonder if there aren’t other kinds of missed connections in our more mundane, everyday lives and interactions. If so, are the less salient, but still very real, consequences moment-to-moment missed connections diminishing the quality of our relationships and, by extension, of our shared existence? This is what I invite you to consider with me today.
In the world of improvisation, or improv as it is more colloquially known, there are a few simple rules that govern all interactions between players. The most well-known amongst these is the famous “yes, and.” In the simplest sense, this means that whatever a fellow improv artist does or says in a scene needs to always be greeted with the spirit and actions of “yes, and,” never “yes, but” or worse yet “no, but.” In order to prepare for performances, improv artists often practice energy exercises in pairs or in larger group circles. These exercises are predicated on each member recognizing, and then responding positively to the energy that their fellow players offer them. You offer unbridled joy? I recognize it and offer my best version of the same. You come with sober gravitas? Right back at you, but not in a serve-and-volley sense. Rather, in a “thank you, and yes, I’ll join you in that” fashion. The point is to connect and join with whatever your partner(s) offer up. Only in this way can true improvisational performance work for both the players and the audience.
What does this mean for us, as leaders, parents, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, and friends? Well, ask yourself this: how often do you meet the energy of those around you with a genuine spirit of “yes, and”? How often do you return eye contact and connection offered to you by a subordinate, a child, a co-worker, or the cashier at the supermarket? More to the point, can you think of times when, likely without the benefit of conscious thought, you averted your gaze before that connection could be made? I know I can, and it is not just because I tend toward introversion (though that is certainly part of the equation). No, I believe that it is because, especially in contemporary society, we are increasingly conditioned to forego these micro-connections and fleeting offers of shared energy. Why? Well, because they threaten to distract us from our preferred distractions, which is to say they stand to draw us back into a world that we increasingly strive to escape at every turn, through the ubiquity of our cloud-connected devices and the non-stop push alerts that dominate our every available neuron.
In his book “On Tyranny,” historian Timothy Snyder encourages us to “make eye contact and small talk” as one of his twenty lessons for the 20th century. So, what I invite us all to do today is really quite simple. I am not suggesting that we should prowl, stalker-like through our day, seeking to establish eye contact with every person who happens to wander within arm’s reach of us (or worse yet, with people minding their own business from across the room!). No, instead I am presenting us with the encouragement to set an intention; to accept those small invitations to connect, which we all too often simply miss, with our fellow humans. In doing so, we may be surprised at what we find, and all that it has to offer us in this ongoing improvisational performance called life…