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Super Human Spotlight: Amber Walker on HR and Active Listening

Welcome to the freshest edition of our Super Human Spotlight series! Amber Walker tells us all about her adventures in human resources, including a stint in the investigations department, how to be an active listener, and what it means to live in the gray.

Watch the video for a taste, then read the full transcript below. Stay tuned for more installments in the coming weeks.

Sarah Ashley: Hi Amber Walker!

Amber Walker: Hi Sarah Ashley!

SA: Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. You are a human resources professional. Can you briefly describe what your job is and what you do for your company?

AW: Yes! I am a human resources manager for a technology company in Chicago. As the human resources manager, I do all kinds of things. I am responsible for helping people function in my office. I do everything from recruiting people to bringing them on board, helping them get completely set up so they know what to do when they come in, and how to do their job. I help people with benefits and career choices. Everything that has to do with the business of having people in your business... I have my fingers in. Is that...? [Laughs]

SA: [Laughs] Sure! Your company is international, right?

AW: Correct - it’s an international company. The headquarters are out of Germany, so that’s really cool and interesting. I'm working with people all over the globe every single day. Not just in Germany, but in other countries as well. It’s really fun and cool.

SA: What is your history in the HR profession?

AW: I’ve been doing HR for about six years. I’ve run the gamut from HR coordination when I first started out, to doing some recruiting work and business partnering, which is really about helping the business understand how to use their people and help their people thrive. I also worked in the investigations department of a company, as well.

SA: What does that mean?

AW: When there are a bunch of different people from different backgrounds with different philosophies of life, there are bound to be some discrepancies, misunderstandings, and in worse cases, some misdoings, wrongdoings. Is misdoings a word?

SA: It is now.

AW: So, I was in a role where when somebody would report an issue, it was my job to take a neutral approach and take a look at the situation from all angles and try to determine where the truth lies. ‘Cause it’s always somewhere in the middle.

SA: Ooooh spooky.

AW: Yeah. [Laughs]

"So often in this world we’re all trying to multi-task and that contributes to a lot of people not really, truly listening... and it leads to a lot of conflict and a lot of misunderstanding."

SA: How long have you been doing improv and theater?

AW: I’ve been doing theater since the third grade. I got bit by the bug hard in the community theater circuit. I’ve been doing theater as a whole for over 20 - ooh, maybe even 25 - years now. But I've been doing improv for about 12 years.

SA: What are some challenges specific to human resources that you encounter regularly? Or you encountered in previous roles?

AW: Some challenges specific to human resources that I encounter… Well, in HR you often operate in the gray. You’re dealing with different people from different backgrounds and while there are laws in place and guidelines for how every company should conduct themselves and do business, there’s often a little bit of wiggle room when you’re actually dealing with real life. So, that would be one of the biggest challenges. I really enjoy that about my job actually.

SA: Why do you enjoy it?

AW: I enjoy working in the gray because I believe that all of life is gray. We all have to work hard. We all like knowing what’s going on, and most of the time we don’t always have a great grasp on the full picture of what’s going on. We’re all kind of operating in the gray, whether we know it or not. When I’m working with people, especially on things that affect them like their benefits, or things that are going on in their life and how they’re going to fit that into work or fit work into their regular life, I really enjoy the challenge of trying to help them put the puzzle pieces together. To make things work as best as they possibly can for everybody involved. And that's not always clear cut and dry.

This is what Amber is getting for her birthday next year.

SA: What are some improv skills you’ve learned that you’ve found helpful in doing your job?

AW: One hundred percent listening. Listening is so important in improv and it is so important in what I do - and in what all of us do. Listening is the biggest thing I’ve gleaned from improv that I take into my everyday real life. A lot of people think that listening is hearing somebody say something and responding to it. But I like to think of listening as being in the moment. Yeah, did that blow you away?

SA: Blew me away!

AW: Yeah, I mean when you’re listening, you are actively taking in what the other person is saying, processing it, and responding directly to what they are saying. So often in this world we’re all trying to multi-task and that contributes to a lot of people not really, truly listening by my definition. And it leads to a lot of conflict and a lot of misunderstanding. I try to practice all the time when I’m doing my work, really being engaged, taking that stance, and listening by processing and directly responding to what people are saying.

SA: If there was something you’ve learned in improv that you wish other people in either your workplace or workplaces that you’ve worked at before that you wish that they would take or learn from what would that be?

AW: I think that the biggest thing is that I wish people would understand that it is not a failing or a fault if you lean on other people to do your job well. You know, in improv we talk about the "gift," right? People in improv give each other gifts. What that means is they give each other little nuggets of information that help their scene partner build up off of that and create something bigger. We’re putting the building blocks up together.

Often in professional life I find that there’s this feeling that people need to prove themselves. In proving yourself and proving your worth, I find that a lot of people define that as positioning themselves as somebody who can do it all and do it all on their own. Often I find that that gets people only so far. None of us are perfect. Nobody in the world has all the answers. And so the sooner people realize that leveraging those people in their circles in work, or in regular life, to build off of the ideas that you have, it's only going to make your ideas stronger.

"I wish people would understand that it is not a failing or a fault if you lean on other people to do your job well... None of us are perfect. Nobody in the world has all the answers."

SA: That is genuinely beautiful. It made me miss doing improv shows.

AW: I’ve been missing it recently too. Interacting with people in a way where you let your mind go and it’s totally free form.

SA: It’s very liberating. How do you think improv and allowing yourself that creative freedom has impacted your work and life?

AW: That creative frame of mind that we cultivate in improv has really helped me excel in my career because I think about things outside of the box. I bring different perspectives. I am more inclined to ask questions and dig deeper into small insights that people provide, and oftentimes I find that that brings us to a whole different idea or place about a strategy than we were intending to go. And you know, sometimes it’s for the better.

So, I would say that creative outlet and that creativity that improv cultivates in people, that freedom to let go and actually be creative and follow where the conversation is going, has been really invaluable in helping people build their own strategies and to help businesses build strategies for their people too.

SA: You started your current job during the pandemic. What was it like to change roles during a crazy time?

AW: Yeah, changing roles and starting a new job completely remotely when my whole job is to make connections with people and help them help them through personal connections was such a daunting task. I take solace in the fact that we’re all kind of in the same boat. Remote working is a pretty new thing for most people in the workforce here, so we’re all kind of navigating it together. That camaraderie, that teamwork, that team feeling really helps to soften some of the edges of learning to work in this different environment.

SA: Have any improv skills made that transition easier?

AW: Improv skills that have made that transition easier... Well, what I would say is that it’s more difficult to read people's nonverbal cues [working remotely]. In improv, when you don’t really know what kind of energy to throw off, we can mirror someone else’s energy. That's something that I’ve used a lot. Because that makes people comfortable. I find it is really helpful for me to get that connection sometimes. Another thing that I've noticed too is that, just from my performance background, I am much more comfortable using the camera in different ways that I find really effective. Like, getting close up or using your hands inside of the frame or facial expressions. I am notorious for having big huge facial expressions. I think it’s really served me in this medium.

SA: This is your medium!

AW: This is my medium babe!

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