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Make Your Partner Look Good (S.5, Ep.12)

March 21

Two people give each other a high five in front of a stack of cardboard boxes
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About This Episode

Headshot of Shannon Hughes

We live in a world where competition is everywhere. But what if we broke the mold and instead focused on making each other look good – de-centering ourselves and centering others?

In this practicast, special guest Shannon Hughes of Enlivened Studios talks with Jessica about how the applied improvisation practice of “Making Your Partner Look Good” can help us in our lives and work.


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Jessica Beckendorf: We live in a world where competition is everywhere, but what if we broke the mold and instead focused on making each other look good, decentering ourselves, and centering others? Hi everyone, this is Jessica Beckendorf, and welcome to this week’s Practicing Connection practicast, where we highlight a specific practice you can use in your life and work. In this series, we’ve been introducing practices from applied improvisation.

During an improv performance, making your partner look good is an essential ingredient to making a scene sane. It requires us to be socially aware of our partner’s needs and to take the focus off of ourselves, always lifting up our team members. Imagine if we did that for each other in daily life. That’s what we’ll be talking about today. I’m excited to introduce Shannon Hughes as our guest again. Shannon and I met through an organization we both belong to called the Applied Improvisation Network.

She’s a facilitator and consultant with a calling to nurture people-first company cultures in companies of all shapes and sizes. In her practice, Enlivened Studios, she brings strategic business mentorship and experiential teaching practices to incite easeful collaboration, and embolden transformational leadership.

Shannon will be guiding us through the practice in a few minutes, but first, let’s learn a little bit more about it. Hi, Shannon. I’m so glad to have you back. This is one of my favorite improv concepts. It’s very pro-social, like so many improv concepts are. I’d like to start by asking you to describe what it means to make your partner look good on stage, and how that can translate to real life.

Shannon Hughes: Thank you. Thank you, and I’m glad to be back again as well. To me, making your partner look good is about inclusivity, interdependence, and even celebration. It’s recognizing that every scene is better when we take the time to listen to one another, to acknowledge one another’s contribution or ideas, and to yes-and those contributions and ideas. It’s not just about grasping onto our own version of what’s right. Trying to tell our own story and hold onto our own truth, but rather saying yes and listening to others’ contributions.

By the way, when I say scene here, I mean both scenes that are on stage, and in real life because let’s be honest, like you said earlier, we are all professional improvisers. No one wakes up in the morning and finds a script on their bedside telling them everything they’re going to say and every breath they’re going to take, and every decision that they need to decide on that day.

We’re all professional improvisers. You could also argue that we’re performing all the time, and this is not in a performative kind of way, so stay with me on this. It’s that we are constantly finding ourselves in different performances, in different scenes, interacting with each other at home, at work, with friends. We even play different characters. We might play the character of the CEO when we’re at work. We might play the busy mom when we’re at home, or the best friend when we’re consoling a friend.

These are all kind of different performances and different scenes. On stage, making your partner look good, and in life, making your partner look good, is really about lifting up and elevating and celebrating your scene partner’s contributions, their ideas, and what that exchange might be when you’re living and communicating, and having dialogue, because when we do that, things run more smoothly.

Wonderful characters are created and story unfolds, and everyone feels like they belong, like they matter. They’re part of this thing that’s being co-created together. This idea of acknowledging one another by saying, “I see you. Thank you, yes,” can be a really beautiful way of making your partner look good.

Jessica: I think when we get mired down and so busy in the work, we forget to pause for a second and thank people, so I’m excited to hear about that. You started to hint at this already, but what effect does this principle of making each other look good have on a team or a collaboration or even an organizational culture?

Shannon: Well, we’ve talked about interdependence and belonging. What a fabulous practice to take into the workplace or into community building efforts to inspire brainstorming or invite conversations around how things might be done differently, or more innovatively and better. If we shut our colleagues or our teammates down by shaming them or giving them a hard yes-but, or even a hard no, especially if that’s done in front of others, can feel humiliating and definitely unmotivating.

What happens then? Well, disengagement, lack of creative problem solving, and retention issues, quite honestly. The phrase is people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. People don’t leave companies, they leave cultures. Psychological safety, which is the idea of creating an environment in an organization or in any community where ideas are welcome and don’t have any sort of punitive repercussion or voices are heard.

Building that psychological safety, which is a term that was coined by Amy Edmondson, this idea of psychological safety is creating that safe and what I call brave space for people to be, I don’t know, it’s a little cliche to say, bring their whole self to work, but an iteration of that concept. To show up for who they are, and to create an environment where people feel like they can voice their thoughts and opinions.

Making your partner look good only codifies that. To say, “Wow, I can speak up here and I’m acknowledged, and I’m even celebrated and shown gratitude for what I say and how I perform here because it’s safe.”

Jessica: This seems like a pretty big mindset shift in a culture that has supported individualism and survival of the fittest, competition. How can we reconcile or maybe bridge the difference between where we’re at now in this individualistic space and what we can achieve together through making each other look good?

Shannon: Beautiful. Well, a couple things came to mind for me on this. The first one is transparency and authenticity. You could add vulnerability, the environment and the mindset shift that you’ve just described. I used to work in an environment like that where it was pretty individual. You kept your head down, got your work done, and it was survival of the fittest. In that situation, it was because culture came from the top down, and by the time it reached the doers, there wasn’t much there.

There certainly wasn’t much transparency or authenticity, and employees lose their sense of why. The idea behind transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability as it relates to this mindset shift is also going to be included in my practice that I’m going to talk about in a second, but it’s this idea of as a leader, and when I say leader, I don’t mean somebody who’s a high paying executive in the corner office, I believe that we’re all leaders.

Whatever that means in the context of this dialogue between a couple of people or a group of people, is to pull up a chair, pull up a stool, have a conversation with your team, talk about the elephant in the room, what’s going right here? Where are our opportunities for improvement? What’s a story as, let’s say I’m the leader in that scenario, what’s a story that I can tell with a degree of vulnerability that then opens the door for other people to share as well?

Even doing that, although that’s not explicitly “making your partner look good” it kind of is because I’m saying I’m human, listen to me and my story. Now what about you? It’s passing the microphone or opening up the room for other people to share their own experiences for the sake of building psychological safety and a thriving culture. Another point that I would say for that shift is, and this is true of any culture building effort, is to make it co-creative. No employee anywhere wants to have some flashy words on a big sign in their entryway that says things like integrity and trust and creativity. [laughs]

Jessica: Three words separated by a period. Yes. Classic.

Shannon: It’s some giant brand consultancy came up with which is, no shade on brand consultancies, but a good one, a good one, and a good leader will include the employees in that conversation. So much of this too is the third point I was going to make about values. If integrity, creativity are your corporate values, where did they come from? What do they mean?

What are the behaviors and the routines that back that up on a day to day basis? How much did you invite the employees or the team members to be part of that conversation so everyone feels like they’re aligned to it and they don’t lose sense of that why, like we mentioned before, and all of that, you could kind of wrap in a big make your partner look good effort because you’re saying, “Yes, I see you. I see you. Let’s do this together.”

Jessica: Well, I’m excited to hear the practice, or I think you have a collection of practices and some guidance for people. Let’s get into that.

Shannon: As I had just mentioned a minute ago, culture and values are just concepts until there are systems, practices, rituals, routines, norms that are put behind those values and that culture. And so often, and so unfortunately often, organizations do half the work, and then some of it just sits on a shelf or on a website somewhere. It’s that operationalizing and systematizing that really upholds that very important work. I use the word system intentionally here, especially with this first point I’m going to make, which is to set up a system for recognition and celebration.

Where does recognition and celebration show up in your mid-year review? Where does it show up in your weekly Tuesday all-staff meeting? When does the CEO or the team leader come out from behind their office door and sit amongst the team and grab lunch together and talk about the highlights of what the team has succeeded in doing versus, we often gravitate towards what’s gone wrong. It’s really systematizing some of that and putting it into practice. I make this silly joke that leaders are supermodels. What I mean by that is, as a leader, it’s so important to model the behavior that you want to see.

You have to be the change you want to see. It starts with you. You, maybe it’s even setting an alarm on your phone to do these things, to make sure that recognition, feedback, celebration is pervasive, and that you invite employees to do that for one another, too. The other one is check-ins, because so often, meetings, especially, people have had a whole day before them and probably have a whole evening ahead of them. Taking a moment to check in and not just, “How’s everybody doing,” but come up with maybe a short list of five exercises or prompts to get people in their body and in the moment so that they feel like they’re present to what’s happening there, and allow that too, to potentially include shoutouts to people, to congratulate people.

I have a practice that I use in my morning journaling. Not every day, but every now and again, I just write down things that I’m proud of, things that I’m celebrating. Because again, we’re so wired to think about the things that haven’t gotten done. All of those can be seen as making your partner look good, because you’re really patting the back of people that you work with and saying, “I’ve got you. I see you. Well done.” One more thing that just came to me. Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. What I mean by that is, the person bagging your grocery, the gentleman walking down the street whose shoes you like, the children who are very clearly behaving while their mom is at the grocery store.

Just that one second to say, “Hey, man, I love your shoes. You’re looking really dapper today.” Oh, my gosh, that can change someone’s entire day. As humans, we get embarrassed. “Oh, I don’t want to say anything,” but imagine the impact if you just say, “I really like your haircut,” or, “Thank you for your work today.” That’s making your partner look good because we’re all partners, right? We’re all just same partners living the dream, right? To see somebody and say something that’s nice about them is so uplifting, and it can have huge ripple effect.

Jessica: I love that. Thank you so much. This collection of practices that you shared with us today are all super simple to implement. As I mentioned before, this is one of my favorite improv principles, and I really enjoyed your perspective on it in our conversation today.

Shannon: Thank you, Jessica. I loved sharing.

Jessica: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for joining us. You can keep up with Practicing Connection by subscribing to the podcast in your favorite podcast app, and by joining the Practicing Connection community on LinkedIn. Visit to subscribe and join. If you have questions, ideas, or feedback for the show, you can email us at [email protected]. We’ll be back next week with another applied improvisation practice to help you break the mold called Noticing Offers and Seeing Them as Gifts. Until then, keep practicing.

Kalin Goble: The Practicing Connection Podcast is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense, under award numbers 2019-48770-30366, and 2023-48770-41333.

[00:15:36] [END OF AUDIO]


March 21
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