The Microwave Challenge

During a recent keynote for the Planned Giving Group of CT we engaged the audience in an exercise called, “The 300 Year Gap*.” This exercise challenges teams of two to create a common understanding about items such as microwave ovens and cell phones with the catch that one team member is from the present and the other is from 300 years ago. The person from 300 years ago has equal intelligence and a frame of reference from that when there was no electricity, modern medicine, or automation. We encourage that partner to question everything that does not make sense and to embody the 300-years-ago character if the spirit moves them.

As the exercise progresses both players get to experience the emotions and challenges of developing a common understanding in the absence of context. The partners quickly realize that the conversation must begin where they have common ground and build from there, with frequent checks to ensure that the both partners are still having the same conversation. If they don’t pursue this path, the results aren’t very fruitful.

stick figure gap.jpg

What emotions come up for us when we don’t understand or can’t make ourselves understood? Frustration, determination, resignation, and amusement were some of the responses we heard from the audience. So then, “How does this relate to working with donors or potential donors, fellow staff, and others in our organizations?” Laughter. Then the participants called out, “We use tons of jargon, talk too fast, and often assume that others understand our processes.” Yes, we do, and once we recognize that each industry has its own language we can begin to adjust our behaviors for better connections!

The antidote to the 300 Year Gap is asking enough open-ended questions to determine the place to start the conversation, noticing our use of jargon, and watching the reactions of the other person (or people) closely to tune in to their level of understanding. We need to develop the ability to notice our own behaviors; how (and to whom) we listen (or don’t), how much we dominate conversations, and how patient we are when there's a gap in understanding. It begins with a look inside and mastery comes with time and practice

In improvisation we learn to co-create a scene with another person or group. The co-creation includes finding common ground, sharing space in the scene, and being willing to transfer control effortlessly from one person to the other – to adjust in the moment to the needs of our scene partners so that the story advances and makes sense.

It turns out that applying these same business improv skills to the worlds of higher education, medicine, and philanthropy causes transformations in communication. The honing of these skills separates the excellent from the average – in leadership and donor development.