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Creating a Partnership of Understanding

I remember when I was in engineering school (in the 90s) that I did well in my first three semesters of Calculus. Then I got to Differential Equations and all of a sudden it wasn't so clear. I assume that the professor knew mathematics and differential equations well. The real problem was his lack of ability to communicate with us, so that we, the students, could learn. I remember we used the textbook he wrote, and let's just say that just because you are a good mathematician, doesn't mean you can create a quality textbook. It was painfully bad. And his lecturing wasn't much better.

Alan Alda has dedicated his later years of life to improving the quality of relating and communicating in the world of science. He founded the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University of New York.

In his recent book (pictured here) he tells the story of going to the University of Southern California to meet with about twenty engineering students. In the morning the engineering students gave presentations.

When they first gave their talks, they ranged from fairly lively to rigidly stilted.... Some buried themselves in PowerPoint and most of them drifted effortlessly into jargon.

Then Alan led them through three hours of improv exercises designed to help them tune into each other, connect, build empathy, and experience communication in a new way. Then they would give their talks again.

The question was, when these engineering students gave their talks again, would they relate to their audience with anything like the same ease that they had related to the another during the games? Or would they fall back into jargon and lecture mode? The results shocked everyone in the room. Including me. ... I had expected one or two of them to show a little progress. Instead almost everyone had improved, no matter what level they had started.

Communication is more than just ''delivering information''. It's about ''creating a partnership of understanding.''*

Communicating to create a partnership of understanding is vital for engineers. We are facing so many complex problems, where lives are at stake, that are solved best by cohesive, collaborative teams. And practicing applied improvisation is a potent way to build these muscles that are needed.

Really, these core skills are needed in any profession where we are relating with people.

This past Monday I led 80 Entrepreneurship and Innovation students at Western Washington University through an applied improv workshop in Dr. Art Sherwood's class.

We discussed - Why Teams Fail? Ideas and people get shut down. People aren't present to each other, the work. Someone dominates. Communication and teamwork is poor.

So...what if we practiced the opposite of that? What if we support each other, cultivate presence and focus, give-and-take, and really get crisp on our communication ensuring that we are connecting more than just ''delivering information''?

And so we did just that. After pushing back and stacking all the rows of desks.

The energy in the room shifted, students were laughing, connecting, and surprising themselves.

At the end of the workshop, one student at the end said to the class that he came in pretty lethargic, and when I invited them to stand up and push the desk back he wasn't feeling up for it. "But now," he said, "I feel really energized."

Another student said, ''Why don't we do this in more classes?" How come this idea hasn't spread more? I smiled and said, "That's a great question! Part of the answer is our attachment to maintaining the status quo. And.... it's also a great opportunity for you and everyone here to share what you are learning and experiencing with others and lead applied improv games in the clubs and organizations you lead, and to help others reflect on how improving communicating and relating is a game changer."

How can you practice an attuned way of relating? And with whom?

And what would be made possible if you did?

*Source: ("Creating a partnership of understanding". I can't remember whether it was Alda or some other place that I read that. please let me know if you know. Might have been the Applied Improvisation book.

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I'd love to do that. I'm away until end of June but let's meet and talk after I return.


David Westerlund
David Westerlund
May 31, 2019

Hi Phil! Thanks for your thoughts on this post and the other one a few weeks back! ... I'm hearing a thread of ''I wish I could go back''... Hey - if you are interested lets talk about team up to bring a workshop to WWU engineering students. Lemme know if you are interested. AND either way - let's get a coffee or lunch. : )


Having been an engineering prof at University of Toronto for 36 years, I completely relate to what you wrote, and wish I could go back and improv(e) my teaching using my improv skills.

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