How to Coach Yourself

I read a great blog on the Harvard Business Review Site, all about how to hear useful feedback from criticism.

Everyone finds it difficult to listen to feedback, because emotional triggers overwhelm the process of listening. That is obviously true and I notice that in myself and others all the time.

This is important because if you want to get better at performing you need to get feedback from somewhere. In my experience, clear and specific feedback is very difficult to come by, especially in comedy or improv. Even really perceptive teachers might only see you for one workshop, so it’s hard to get the kind of long-term coaching that can point out common habits of yours. Which is why I found changing my attitude to feedback fundamental to learning more. I’m the only person that can invest in my long-term growth as an improviser and performer. I can’t make other people get better at giving feedback, but I can get better at hearing feedback.

Here are the pointers that I recognise most in myself.

Three Triggers

Truth- I find this comes from audiences or improvisers who have different tastes. Especially when people are new to improv or have only seen one side of it. It’s tempting to discard an audience member’s opinion because he or she hasn’t done the same training, but I need audiences to be a performer.

Relationships- This is true, also connected to audience members again. I think when I started I immersed myself in improv so tended to listen to other improvisers or teachers more, whatever they said. It took a while to learn how to filter advice from people I look up to. They are human too.

Identity- For me, as far as improv, this was the largest trigger. I used to be intimidated by physical work beyond all reason, so getting feedback on that froze me up and brought up a lot of self-doubt. Now I choose to work on my weakness I find it less scary. I want to get better, so it makes sense to get the most feedback there. Otherwise it’s like polishing the toes of your shoes and letting the rest fall apart.

There are a couple of the steps which I want to expand on, because you can use them on yourself. We give ourselves feedback all the time.

Six Steps

1. Tendencies- This is a big one. We all pick up habits that help us, then carry on doing them even when they start getting in the way. I used to argue a lot, I loved engaging in debates about political or philosophical points. I got bored but I kept some of that habit around when taking feedback. It’s tempting to prove somebody wrong if they say something that doesn’t appear right at first, but I get more out of listening to their point of view instead of repeating myself. Telling somebody they are wrong will never make me a better improviser. Considering a different point of view might make me a better improviser. It’s just being practical.

3. Sort Towards Coaching. This is one of the most important things, for life. There is a difference between evaluation and coaching.

Evaluation just tells you somebody else’s opinion. Coaching tells you something you can do, an action that you can take.

When I started performing I heard everything as evaluation. That’s a dead end. That just tells you where you are, it doesn’t tell you how to get anywhere.

I was in a clowning class and we did a simple movement and the teacher noted I took the least amount of risk doing it. Back then I just took it as personal trait. When I learned how to translate that into action it blew my mind. The action is taking more risks. If I feel stuck in an exercise, I purposefully take a risk and find something new. Because it isn’t a habit of mine, I am guaranteed to find something new by pushing it. It’s so obvious and yet so genius.

Decent teachers translate that for you, I remember that Mark Beltzmann told me to take more risks. Not everybody understands the impact difference between “You don’t take many risks” and “Take more risks”, which is why as a performer you need to learn how to do that.

Coaching Yourself

I think all the tips in the article are great, but for coaching yourself learning how to understand your reactions and listen to them is most important.

You might find it useful to note how you react to difficult shows or exercises, then see if you can sort that into coaching. Instead of defining yourself by where you are, look to where you want to be, and come up with actions to get there. If you don’t like singing, maybe you want to sign up to a singing class so you can practice it without having to improvise at the same time. Maybe you just don’t like singing. It’s the same with physical work or any other part of improv, there are always places you can go to isolate and practice a single skill.

If you tell yourself you are rubbish at a certain improv game, that could mean that you want to understand it better and need to practice it more, or it could mean that you just don’t like that game.  Neither one is better or worse, they are just facts. Taking the time to treat your inner signals with respect and understand them leads to increased awareness and confidence.