Westmont Magazine Taking Comedy into Communication Training

Don Waisanen ’02

Don Waisanen ’02 was involved with ComedySportz Santa Barbara, a competitive improvisational group, while he majored in communication studies at Westmont. He took what he learned about theory in the classroom to the troupe to improve his impromptu speaking skills.

After he earned his doctorate in communication studies from USC and published research, his vocation and avocation came together. “I’d always thought improv was my side life,” he says. “I spent 10 years wandering around L.A. doing open mics with comedians and having a lot of fun. But I asked myself whether I was headed down an academic path.”

In the end, he didn’t have to choose. “The story of my career so far is disparate fields of interest suddenly coming together,” he says. “It’s like random streams eventually flow in the same direction.”

Don began training students in leadership communication at the City University of New York (CUNY), leaning on improvisational exercises and games instead of lecturing. “These classes started taking off, and people were saying, ‘Wow, this is really different,’” he says. In one of his MBA classes, Don took a poll and found all his students had studied strategy and planning, but no one had ever enrolled in a course designed to manage the unexpected.

“Strategy and planning, it’s replete throughout our education,” he says. But the students said they spent most of their workday managing the unexpected. “That’s what this class does,” he says. “How can we improvise and adapt to other people? Are you ready to pivot? Are you ready to let go of the knowledge you have?”

Still active with ComedySportz New York, Don started developing professional training with hands-on improvisational elements. “When you’re doing an improv comedy show, 70 to 80 percent of the time, it’s probably going to work,” he says. “When you do it in the context of training and teaching, it works 99 percent of the time because people thirst to be involved in this kind of education.”

Don founded and serves as president of Communication Upward, a strategic communication company that facilitates workshops, retreats and one-on-one coaching in speech and writing. A professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs of Baruch College at CUNY, Don has written six books and close to 50 scholarly publications, including “Leadership Standpoints: A Practical Framework for the Next Generation of Nonprofit Leaders” and “Improv for Democracy: How to Bridge Differences and Develop the Communication and Leadership Skills Our World Needs.” “I love seeing the human capacity for creativity unleashed in everyone,” he says. “It’s a matter of breaking down mental barriers to that creativity.”

Improv for Democracy

Looking at the big picture in “Improv for Democracy,” Don says that humankind is experiencing the fastest period of change in the medical and science worlds, but that communication has lagged behind. “We need to develop forms of communication adequate for the world we're living in,” he says.

Those necessary perspectives and skills include listening well, working across differences, knowing how to suspend judgment, learning how to be curious about other people, moving forward with confidence, pulling back and being humble when needed and allowing open space for communication with other people. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he says.

A week before the pandemic broke out, he and his team in New York put their work to the test, inviting 10 people with widely ranging political differences to deliberate about health care and other issues. Before they began slugging it out, Don added improv exercises at the beginning, middle and end. “Afterwards, a participant said, ‘When we do this kind of work, it makes it really hard to hate,’” he says. “I think that’s our slogan now. We want T-shirts that say: Make It Hard to Hate.

“It all comes back to the simple call to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.”

Leadership Standpoints

In “Leadership Standpoints,” he has compiled lessons he gleaned teaching leadership and communication to nonprofit professionals. It offers a framework for three overarching ideas: practicing inclusion, building spaces for performance and thinking and acting with range.

“All societies are at this inflection point where they need to take inclusion seriously,” he says. “We’re coming into contact with more people across more cultures than ever before. We’re often in a world of strangers with each other. Leaders need to distribute authority and be inclusive for their organizations to be effective in bringing in revenue and retaining people. We’re seeing this stuff play out already with the Great Resignation.”

The book encourages leaders to build a space where people want to be, receive good treatment, perform well and flourish. “That’s what Westmont was for me,” Don says. “It was this incredible space to perform into the kind of future we need — and do it in community.”

For Don, thinking and acting with range offers another way of talking about the LIBERAL ARTS. “In an age of specialization, we need broad-based thinking that allows us to work with diverse people and experiences and to cross boundaries easily rather than being stuck in one narrow field of interest,” he says.

Don and his wife, Laura Davis Waisanen ’04, have three children. Lauren is earning a Master in Public Health from the University of Arizona to become a more powerful advocate for change in our health care system.