Communication Tips From Actors, Production Crews, and 4-Year Olds


As a part-time theater artist, I would never think of starting an acting class or a rehearsal without a mental and emotional “check-in” from the group before diving into the work. Yet I don’t apply this same mentality with my government-job team meetings. A recent online MOOC has inspired me to reconsider my approach at work.

I’m constantly taking free online courses from colleges and experts in my spare time to keep my mind sharp and improve my knowledge and job skills. The most recent one, “Storytelling for Change” from NovoEd, features instructors that help change leaders see the world’s potential and “tell powerful stories that inspire action.”

Using best practices from acting … in the boardroom

One of the session videos includes concepts that are very familiar to me as an acting coach and director: an emotional quality check-in with the team and yourself. Quality acting requires extreme vulnerability, so an emotional acknowledgment is essential the beginning of a class or rehearsal. Looking someone in the eye and a heartfelt, “How are you?” has a dual purpose. First, it allows the actor to honestly express themselves, leading to the confidence that it’s safe to show vulnerability. Equally important, it forces the director or acting teacher to be completely present and “in the moment” with the cast and crew.

It never occurred to me to do the same at work as I do in the theater. If anything, I habitually shove all emotions aside and get right down to business. The more complex the project or higher the stakes, the more mentally focused and action-oriented I become – with the unintended result of potentially ignoring the emotional mindset of my team members, as well as myself. The interpersonal communication problems were summed up nicely in a recent blog:

“Hiding stress from others may feel intuitive; after all, we don’t want to bother other people with our problems. But by not realizing that employees and customers can still see and intuit the signs of stress in others, Leaders risk showing up as abrupt, disengaged, angry or defensive.”

Accepting truth – for progress and change

Before entering government service, one of my many careers was video and event production, a project-based, team-oriented, high-stress environment. Like the acting world, the successful production environment involves honest communication between all parties – the good, the bad, and the ugly. How long will the stage build take? How many mics are needed? Is talent the actor/speaker/performing artist) ready to be cued? A dishonest “yes” to any of these questions can lead to empty stages, dead air, or missed natural lighting and an entire expensive production day shot.

Production crew members are very good about being honest. There’s no shame in going on a negative rant, because the next immediate step is to solve the problem. It’s taken me years to realize that most administrative government and corporate offices do not communicate like production crews, and the “cut-to-the-chase” attitude can be received as negativity and impatience.

Extraordinary leaders appreciate and require honesty. Witness the success of Alan Mulally, the corporate executive who turned Ford around during a crisis period in the car industry. His approach at Ford was multi-faceted, but one of the key components was to create a safe environment for his managers to tell the truth without being punished if the news was bad.

“It has been reported that before Mulally took over, internal meetings at Ford were like mortal combat,” wrote Sarah Miller Caldicott in a Forbes article in 2014. “Executives regularly looked for vulnerability among their peers and practiced self-preservation over collaboration. Mulally changed all that, making executive meetings a safe environment where data could be shared without blame, improving collaboration and setting the stage for innovation success.”

Not all leaders are like Mulally, and many government offices bear unfortunate similarities to the pre-Mulally environment at Ford described in the article. So how does someone start the change in communication approach, especially if directness alienates the team?

Learning communication skills from my 4-year old

I recently witnessed a parent telling a preschooler what she needed to work on in her gymnastics class. It was a point-by-point conversation, with a lot of “You need to do this” or “you need to work on this.” The child quickly lost interest in the conversation (and potentially gymnastics in general).

My own 4-year old has gymnastics strengths and weaknesses too, but I opted for a different communication strategy, one based loosely on the Socratic Method. “What was really fun to work on today?” was the first question. She readily dived in with a detailed answer about the trampoline. “What was not fun?” She took a few seconds, then again provided details. “What was easy? What was hard? What can you do right away? What do you need to practice more?” By asking and then quietly listening without judgment, I watched my sometimes-reluctant small child become happily willing to practice the exercises she hated.

As I sat there inwardly patting my own back, thoughts turned to my communications in the work environment. I concluded that utilizing three ideas – the emotional check-in, the creation of a safe environment for truth, and utilizing a series of what’s good/what needs work questions (and waiting for the team to answer, not me) – might be an approach worth trying.

Mary Beth Barber is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Sonia Chakrabarty

These are great ideas! I think the emphasis on a “safe environment” is especially important, because all levels of employees need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts before they can fully participate in a communicative, collaborative environment. It’s amazing what we can learn and apply from our personal experiences.

Cecilia Sisneros

I have been trying to adjust my email preferences. Every time I get “Page cannot be displayed” I need to adjust my emails I receive.