Don't Anticipate... REACT!

Expecting is the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow, it loses today.
-Seneca

Our society seems to regard anticipation as a very valuable and necessary skill. Everyone seems to want to anticipate what's going to happen or they're ready to excoriate someone else for not anticipating something. I'm a fan of planning but not so fond of anticipation. Allow me to explain the slight but important difference between the two.

Planning is preparing for some future event. It is achieving a state of readiness for whatever may come. Part of planning is anticipating the range of possibilities that may arise. This foreseeing may be based on facts, experience, intuition, or blind luck and it's an important facet of getting ready. Once an event—whether it's a performance, meeting, conversation, or what-have-you—begins, anticipation loses its value and can indeed become a hazard.

There are a couple of improv exercises that illustrate well the drawbacks of anticipation. One is a mirroring game in which two people try to move together as one, alternating and sharing the roles of leader and follower. Another is an echoing exercise in which a speaker's words are repeated as s/he says them by the listener(s). In each case, I can tell when followers and listeners are anticipating because they make really big mistakes!

What anticipation is doing in these instances is taking people out of what is actually happening and into what they think is going to happen. They're responding to their thoughts and not to the moment. This is not where you want to go, regardless of whether you're an improv performer, a business leader, or a trial attorney.

A 'real life' example of the dangers of anticipation is one all too familiar to almost all of us. You're having a conversation (or what passes for one) and doing the no-fun job of listening to the other person. It's no fun because it's much more fun to say your thing. So this other person is three words into her sentence and suddenly you're thinking about what you're going to say next. Been there?

Suddenly, at best, you're only listening to a fraction of what a person is saying, which is kind of lonely and not very nice. At worst, you're totally misunderstanding them. They may have sounded like they were going one way with their point when in fact they're going another direction entirely. That's no good and it gets worse as the stakes of the encounter rise.

Another fine example of this happens in sports when a defender anticipates the offensive player is going to zig and he zags instead. This tends to make the defender look embarrassingly bad; the technical term is getting faked out of your jock. Of course the offensive player is usually actively trying to deceive the defender.

In improv, you can tell when anticipation is going on because the players aren't really responding to each other. They're not connecting and they miss the "offers" they give to each other because these offers have not been anticipated and are therefore hidden. Like Carly Simon, the players might sing, "Anticipation is keeping me waiting," waiting for something they expected rather than what's really happening.

Now when I'm teaching a course, whether it's FIZ or improvisational theater for actors, and we process the mirroring or echoing activities, participants often say they found them easier to do when they anticipated the actions or words. To that I respond, "Why didn't you just react instead?"

That is, there is such a minute time lapse between anticipating and reacting in the moment that it can rarely be detected—save for when the big mistake of an incorrect anticipation occurs. Really, our minds are so wonderfully quick that we can respond to someone else one word, one movement, one moment at a time! And if we're in reaction mode rather than anticipating, we may reap the additional benefit of actually connecting to that other person rather than staying locked inside our own heads!

Please pardon the exclamation points! It's just that I get excited about this!!!

Encouraging reaction instead of anticipation is like Paul Sills's advising his students, "See what you see, not what you think you see. Hear what you hear, not what you think you hear." It's all a part of trying to escape the prison of the ego for the freedom of being in the moment and real human interaction.

So be prepared, as the Boy Scouts suggest, and employ anticipation in your planning. But then leave anticipation when you leave your planning. Replace anticipation with being in the moment and reacting to what's really happening. You might be surprised at how well that works, how aware you are, how well you listen, and how appropriately and excellently you are able to respond.

What, were you anticipating a witty conclusion?

-Greg Hohn, Director