Newsletter Article: The Wrong Answer to Wrong Answers

[This article orginially appeared in the Merlin-Works November News Letter]

There are no wrong answers.
How many times have you ever been in a group where the leader asks a question to the crowd, such as “What are you hoping to get out of this session?” And when people are reluctant to answer and a silent tension falls over the room, the leader says something like, “There are no wrong answers.” “There’s no right or wrong here.” or “The only stupid answer is the one you don’t give.”

That is stupid.

In the leader’s defense, he’s trying to loosen people up, make them feel free to give their answer by telling them that whatever they say is going to be right. But we all know he’s a liar.

Of course there’s a wrong answer. There are thousands: “The class I really wanted to take was full, so I took this one instead.” “I just needed to get away from my kids for a few hours before I hurt somebody.” “Hopefully I’ll get some hot chick’s phone number out of this.” And I can think of a hundred more entirely inappropriate responses I won’t put in my company’s newsletter.

In my opinion, reassuring people that nothing will go wrong is a terrible technique for encouraging risk. Mostly because something usually does go wrong. And acting as if nothing is wrong–when clearly something is–just introduces tension into the room and keeps it there.

Instead, it’s much better to reassure people that sometimes things will go wrong and you have a way of dealing with that and making it okay. In my workshops, we have something called the Circus Bow. Any time that you feel like you messed up, you just raise your hands above your head, smile, take a bow and say, “I failed.” When anyone does this, the group gives them a round of applause. It’s surprisingly fun. The Circus Bow has many applications, and one of them is giving participants the opportunity to acknowledge mistakes, relieve tension, and move on. It’s a surefire way to loosen people up and increase participation.

So here’s how I would modify that initial leader’s statement when the silence falls over the room:
There are wrong answers. You might give some. And it’s no big deal

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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