I came across an extremely simple idea to help improvisers who have trouble with agreement, which is just about everybody. Just nod your head yes when you are listening to your scene partner. I tried it in a class recently and it works quite well. You don’t have to think specifically about yes anding what they say. Just nod yes a couple of times, especially right before you speak. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to agree to what they’ve initiated.
I thought of trying this because of two things. First, I had heard of a study that asked some people to nod yes while they listened to an editorial. Afterwards, they were more inclined to say they agreed with the editorial than people who were encouraged to shake their head no while listening. The difference was rather large, not just a statistical blip. It suggests that nodding your head up and down causes something in your subconscious to make your conscious thoughts more agreeable. Second, I watched the video of a show that my class had performed. I was looking for things we could work on for the next class. In the first moment of the first scene, before anyone started talking, one of the students was shaking his head no… even before he heard the initiation of his scene partner. Watching that made me think of that study. And that made me think, “I’m going to make my students nod yes constantly and see what happens.”
And you know what? It worked. They actually were much more agreeable. I suppose that doesn’t really prove anything. This was directly after I gave them several notes about how they weren’t agreeing very well in their show. So perhaps it was simply a physical reminder to be more agreeable, but it sure seemed to work.
There were a few students who struggled with it. They didn’t like nodding. Perhaps it felt a little silly or artificial. But if they really tried nodding, they had no problem agreeing.
The day after the class Robert, my assistant teacher, pointed out that he thinks that more than a couple of great of improvisers do this unconsciously and he gave a couple examples. I think he’s right, and I’m going to do it regularly too until it becomes an unconscious reflex for me.
Update September 17, 2016: Today in class I encouraged students mix affirmative words and utterances while nodding. For instance saying things like yes, uh-huh, right, and yep while their scene partner was talking. It really does work.