The Art of Improv and Business – An Interview with Andrea Flack-Wetherald (Inspiring Women, Episode 32)
Andrea Flack-Wetherald joined host Betty Collins to share her journey from corporate to comedy to mindful improv. She shared why she teaches curiosity over judgment, how she helps teams improve communications and their overall effectiveness, and much more. “Inspiring Women” is presented by Brady Ware & Company.
Betty’s Show Notes
“Improv, in one sense, is being present in this moment with curiosity instead of judgment and being empowered to know that I have the ability to build something different if I don’t like how it is right now.”
My guest, Andrea Flack-Wetherald, loves improv. She discovered it during a particularly acute season of personal and professional transition.
She also loves mindfulness practice. Combining the fun of improv with the quiet power of mindfulness is the work she does with her clients. Her company, &Beyond, helps elevate company teams to a new level of effective production.
Mindful improv, it sounds scary to a lot of people. In this episode, you’re going to learn the difference between habits and circumstances. And you’re really going to learn that this not just changing you but changing culture. And about the stories that we develop in our minds about people, or the company we work for, or the culture we live in.
And by the way, you’ve been improvising all your life. So this isn’t something new to learn, it’s just recognizing it’s a part of you.
This is THE podcast that advances women toward economic, social and political achievement. Hosted by Betty Collins, CPA, and Director at Brady Ware and Company. Betty also serves as the Committee Chair for Empowering Women, and Director of the Brady Ware Women Initiative. Each episode is presented by Brady Ware and Company, committed to empowering women to go their distance in the workplace and at home.
For more information, go to the Resources page at Brady Ware and Company.
Remember to follow this podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. And forward our podcast along to other Inspiring Women in your life.
00:00:00] Betty Collins
Today, I’m going to go out on a limb, taking on a subject matter that I know really not a lot about, but I’m intrigued by it. The topic is mindful improv. I have an expert today who’s going to educate my audience, but they’re also going to- she’s going to educate me. So, we’ll see how this goes. We’ll see how improv we are. If you want different results in your business, though, maybe you need to do something different, and that would apply to any area of your life. So, taking a chance on a new approach, maybe that’s just what you need to do, or at least be open to it.
[00:00:39] Betty Collins
So, what attracts me to this guest is the different approach for a very common issue that we all have in business, and certainly in our society, which is conflict and division. And maybe we just need to navigate through these times we live, with a different method and approach. The overall goal when she goes in and helps businesses or places, even nonprofits, we’ll talk about that, is to help the leaders in that business navigate conflict effectively, and restore unity in the group, and ultimately achieve whatever their goal is together, and I say that in all caps, if you saw this on one of my social media accounts.
[00:01:26] Betty Collins
My guest is a professional woman with a lot of passion, who I know because of her dad. We went to the same college back in 1984, so it tells you how old I am, and probably how old she is. And he introduced us thinking we might be a good pair. I have great stories about Ron, but we’ll focus on improv instead. Andrea Flack-Wetherald holds a BSW from Bluffton University, and spent the early part of her career working on a research project, focused on addiction-related behavior.
[00:02:04] Betty Collins
Andrea gained training and performance experience as an improviser in Pittsburgh in New York City, before beginning to investigate that they overlap, maybe, between an improv ability to adapt to rapid change, and the scientific aspects of behavior. Again, I told you this was going to be a lot different. The evidence-based methods, though, studied by scientists in helping the professions, and the very practical skills improvisers use to build confidence, collaboration and effective communication in rapidly-changing environments.
[00:02:37] Betty Collins
The result is a unique, immersive learning experience that has been transforming, empowering leaders, HR personnel, and those cultural stakeholders for the past four years. It’s really what she’s built her company on. Outside of her corporate work, Andrea founded the Peace Building Conspirators, which is a diverse, multifaith, non-partisan, online community. Listen to that. Let’s say it again, a diverse, multifaith, non-partisan, online community that’s dedicated to the uses of mindful improv for healing relationships across the political divide, and building a peaceful, just beautiful future for our country.
[00:03:20] Betty Collins
That’s another whole podcast for another time, but what a great way to give back to your community, and to something that’s really needed. So, I have some questions, definitely, for you, but welcome today, Andrea. I know that you are in process of doing school at home, getting to your office, having all those things. So, before we get into the questions, just tell us a little about you.
[00:03:50] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
So, I’m Ron’s daughter, as you know noted. And it was interesting leaving the Canton Nazarene community when I moved here to Pittsburgh, because it was the first time that saying, “Ron’s last daughter,” didn’t really mean anything to people. So, I had to grow to this point with my own chance, so to speak. But in all seriousness, my husband and I have lived here in Pittsburgh for about 11 years. We met at a small Mennonite school in Western Ohio, and then came to the big city.
[00:04:32] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
That’s kind of a joke because Pittsburgh is not that huge of a city, but compared to the small Mennonite community where we lived, it’s ginormous. And yeah, we’ve just been building our lives together, figuring out what we’re going to do with our careers, and with our passions. And we were fortunate in 2019 to adopt our two children after a pretty long journey with foster care, that was really hard, but also very informative about really what mindful improv is to me.
[00:05:05] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
It really gave me an interesting opportunity to put some of these ideas about engaging vulnerable, delicate, high-stakes confrontation, really put that stuff to the test because there are few circumstances I’ve encountered that are as uncomfortable, and as delicate as the experience of being in family court, and the experience of navigating our children’s birth family, and wanting to really do a good job of honoring who these people are to them, while at the same time acknowledging some of the adult realities that they don’t understand.
[00:05:40] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Anyhow, there’s a lot of perspectives that have fed into the work that I do. But I think it’s all connected, we’re all human people, and it’s been really fascinating. There were a few trainings or speaking engagements and things in some of those really tough chapters of our foster care experience, where I would be crying in my car and then have to pull it together, and go in, and do this work.
[00:06:05] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
I found that the more often that I was just real about that energy at the beginning, the more frequently people would be like, “You know what, we’re actually a foster family, too.” Or, “I grew up in foster care.” Behind the nametag, behind the job title, this person isn’t just the chief bean counter at XYZ company, they’re a human person. And these experiences are more shared than we realize.
Anyhow, that’s a lot of information to a short question, but I think it’s all [CROSSTALK]
[00:06:31] Betty Collins
That’s okay. It’s actually a great set to go to the questions, because this is personal for you, as well as this is what you do professionally. So, it all connects. So, I love your who-are-you? story. It went long, but okay. I’m good.
[00:06:50] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
The work that I’m teaching other people, it’s not just stuff that sounds good, it’s stuff that I have to use in my daily life. So, I swear by it because I see it work.
[00:07:00] Betty Collins
Well, how did you end up then? You were in corporate America, and you went to comedy. Let’s start there.
[00:07:07] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
A left turn not many people in my life saw coming. So, when I was working at the Behavioral Change, the research study that you mentioned when you were reading my bio, it was focused on smoking cessation, but certainly focused on a variety of aspects, of when someone is experiencing addiction and trying to make a behavior change. While I was working there, I had this idea for a tech startup. And so, I was, in the evenings, working on this idea with one of my coworkers, who also worked at the study. We’re pitching at Startup Weekend and doing all this, and we actually won.
[00:07:50] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Part of our package that we won was a membership to the Pittsburgh Tech Council. They offered this free training that was called Improv for CEOs. And even though I was 23 and didn’t know what I was doing at all, I was technically the CEO of this idea, in any way that you can be the CEO of an idea. So, I got to go to this workshop, and I went- honestly, I don’t know what possessed me to go to this thing, other than I love to connect with people through laughter, and it seemed like it would be fun.
[00:08:21] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
A lot of my life was just burning the candle at both ends, and so, I think I just wanted a little break. So, I was prepared for it to be fun, I was not prepared for it to be so meaningful. And it was like, we got in there and it’s all about being in the moment, and listening beyond your comfort zone, and being sacrificial in the way you’d support your scene partners, even if you don’t totally understand their ideas yet. Even if you’re sure that they’re wrong or they misheard the audience suggestion. So, being brave enough to offer your own contributions, instead of just hanging out on the sidelines, watching other people do it.
[00:08:59] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
So, there’s all these skills that were happening in the moment, and I was watching these other CEOs. I called them real CEOs at the time, but I’ve listened to another [INAUDIBLE] -centered podcasts since then, to know I shouldn’t say that. You know I’m watching these grown, adult men be silly in front of each other, and watching the sweat, the sweat on their temples as they decide whether or not they were seriously going to let their guard down, and be vulnerable in that way in front of people in their professional network.
[00:09:31] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
And I just sat there thinking, “Oh, my God. This is way bigger than what anyone in this room maybe sees.” These skills will change these people’s lives. If they sign up for improv classes and they keep doing this for real, we are going to learn a whole new way for being professionals in America. And so, that’s how I got started. This idea planted in my brain, and I was like, “Doug, what we’re doing here, these are evidence-based.”
[00:10:01] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
We understand the benefits of mindfulness practice, for example. We understand from a social science perspective what’s happening in someone’s brain when they really try to become something different than what they’ve been before. We understand what is happening when they jump from one bucket to the next, in this then, theoretical model, which I don’t know how far down the rabbit hole we want to go on this interview.
[00:10:29] Betty Collins
But I think that you’ve explained- obviously, you were in corporate America, already using science, already very aware of science on behavior. And then you saw comedy people, and letting their guard down. But if you could wrap your- in one sentence. Wrap for me or say, “My mindful improv is-,” how would you break that into one sentence? Because we’ve got to give people insight, because it’s not common.
[00:11:04] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
So, mindful improv is being present in the current moment, and first of all, choosing curiosity instead of judgment, about whatever is happening around you. That’s the first part; choosing curiosity instead of judgment. That’s the mindfulness piece. The improv piece is very empowering, because that’s about the understanding that, this will be what I build it to be.
[00:11:32] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
I am creating this in this moment alongside somebody else. It’s not prescribed for me, we’re building it together. So, it’s, mindful improv in one sentence is, being present in this moment with curiosity instead of judgment, and being empowered to know that I have the ability to build something different if I don’t like how it is right now.
[00:11:55] Betty Collins
Got it. So, what I want you to do after this podcast is email that to me, because I want that somewhere on my wall. I love how that rolls. And that’s a great way to say it. It definitely gives my audience in me, “Okay, now, that all makes sense. Wow.” And at the same time, you’re going, “That’s a lot. That’s a lot to think on.” So, my podcast is to inspire women, and I have a lot who are business owners, or they’re women in business, or they just, for whatever reason, like listening to Betty Collins ramble, I don’t know. But how can we apply mindful improv to business? What’s the connection?
[00:12:40] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
So, there are lots and lots of connections, and there are some that are more superficial than others. I started out with the business application of sales, because when I worked in corporate, I was the director of marketing at a different company here in Pittsburgh. And I was getting sales calls all day long from people, and just thinking, I would feel so much less throat-punchy if any of these people had taken an improv class, and they were actually listening to me, instead of just reading from a script.
[00:13:12] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
It’s so irritating to feel like we are not having a human conversation right now. So, my first instinct was, let me teach sales to people, and help them have a normal human being connection, as they’re doing business development, basically. So, that was my first inclination, but as I started doing that, I realized, “Well, what I really care about so much more is empathetic leaders who care so much about culture, helping them build a culture that consistently is in alignment with their values.”
[00:13:47] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Because as I started going into companies, what I realized is, even when people- when their employers, or whatever are telling you that there’s such a toxic culture, and whatever, what I’ve realized is that I go into the office, and on occasion, it’s been my job to have the hard conversation that others don’t want to have with a certain leader, or whatever. I’m expecting cloven hooves and a tail, based on what people have been saying. Then I get in there and realize it is not their intention for it to be this way. They’re more aware than they realize- than other people realize, is what I meant to say, ofthe cultural issues, and their role in it.
[00:14:27] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
More often than not, when you give someone an environment that’s safe to be real, and they don’t feel like they have to be defensive and whatever, they’ll be honest. Most people are not stupid. People tell me all the time, “So-and-so is a sociopath,” or, “They’re, whatever.” People love to tell me that everyone is a narcissist. And as a social worker, I’m like, “Okay, well, that’s a diagnosable personality disorder.” I don’t actually think that the majority of leaders, or the majority of managers are narcissists, or sociopaths, or whatever.
[00:15:00] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Anyhow, the deepest application for me that I have chosen to use, because like I said, there are a lot of them, when it just comes to, “Help us be more creative in our quarterly planning meeting or whatever.” I used to do that type of thing. But now, what I really care about is, build a culture that consistently matches your values. And how we do that is by modeling that behavior, day in and day out, of being vulnerable, and in the way that you handle confrontation.
[00:15:31] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Because culture is really determined- it’s not determined by the posters on your wall. It’s really determined by the moments when people are being vulnerable, and how you respond to that. So, vulnerable is, we’re brainstorming and I’m pitching an idea that’s bold. Instead of a safe vanilla idea, I’m pitching something that feels a little bit scary. How is that received? Don’t ask people for amazing ideas if they know they’re going to get laughed at, even a little bit. Those, we call them micro aggressions, that let people know, “Oh, really? Your vulnerability is not welcome here. Your dangerous idea, no, thanks.”
[00:16:10] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
How do you respond when people are advocating for themselves, when they’re saying, I need paternity leave, or whatever the case may be? I want this type of opportunity, I want a promotion, I want a raise. What is the infrastructure for you to consistently be who you intend to be, day in and day out? So, some of these things might sound really tactical, but the reality is, if it were so easy to just implement, have your HR person implement a checklist, everyone would have done it by now. The reality is that, in between the checklist is a lot of improv. I’ve never said it like that before, but I’m really glad I just did it, because I mean it.
[00:16:47] Betty Collins
I love that.
[00:16:47] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
In between those checklist components is improv, and it’s how you respond in your day-to-day communication with people, how you show up, what is people’s lived experience with you as a leader? And so much of that is about mindful improv; being in the moment, being present in the moment with curiosity instead of judgment, and giving yourself permission to build something different than what you thought you were building five minutes ago.
[00:17:15] Betty Collins
Well, I would tell you that you probably surprise a lot of your clients when you do get there, and you give that much openness and that much freedom, is what I hear. So, probably, there’s a little bit of, “Hey, this is terrifying,” right?
[00:17:34] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
[00:17:34] Betty Collins
So, most people would think of this as terrifying. Even my audience might well be hearing you, going, “This would be a scary thing, or never work in my office.”
[00:17:42] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
To do improv, yes.
[00:17:42] Betty Collins
So, what do you say to people who say, “This will never work in our office, and they would be way too intimidated and this is terrifying.” What would you say to them, simply to get them to consider it?
[00:17:58] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Well, the first thing that I would say is, you’ve been an improviser your whole life. We’ve all been doing improv, improv isn’t scary. We are improvising right now. Nobody was given a playbook on how their life was going to go the day they were born. You’ve been improvising since your very first infantile desire to connect with another person; those first smiles, the first time you realized, when I do this, my parents laugh.
[00:18:25] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
You’ve been improvising your entire life, you couldn’t be more equipped to be a fantastic improviser. What’s scary is performance. That’s what’s scary; feeling put on the spot, and, “Oh, I better say something funny.” So, most of the time when people say they’re scared of improv, what they’re really scared of is performance. Because, as I’ve said, we’ve been improvising our whole lives.
[00:18:47] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
So, in order to make these workshops push people to the perfect point where they’re out of their comfort zone, which is critical; we have to be vulnerable, we have to be courageous, but we don’t need to be traumatized. And so, to toe that line, I’ve just removed the performance component. So, all of the activities that happen, happen in a way that is psychologically safe, as we say, in the world of social science, to make sure people feel like they can participate without being put on the spot.
[00:19:15] Betty Collins
And you’ve always intrigued me as I’ve watched you on LinkedIn, or seen this subject matter, and certainly for a CPA. And at the same time, this type of method, this type of mindset could really, I think, change your organization, change that culture, which then changes the organization. So, I just wanted my audience to know more about it. My last question for you, Andrea, is, what is the most important thing that you’ve learned as an improviser, now that you’ve done all your life, but actually been intentional about it as a company in a profession, that you see has helped leaders in the professional setting?
[00:19:56] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
It really is the curiosity over judgment piece. And sometimes, that’s difficult to hear, or sometimes, better said, sometimes it’s more receivable to say curiosity instead of certainty. Because I think people are like, “I’m not judgmental, I’m open-minded.” And everyone wants to talk about innovation. So, the reality is that, when you walk in, and you’re certain that you know what kind of person you’re dealing with. And so, it’s about the story that we’ve been telling ourselves.
[00:20:25] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
I think the most, what I’ve heard in the feedback, because, of course, I do evaluations every time. And so, what I’ve heard in the feedback is that, the most impactful component of this is the permission and the tools for changing the story you tell yourself, about your boss or your team, or, “I’m not going to start working on this project that I think we really need to be working on at this company, whatever it is, until I have such-and-such a person in place.” We got to get these problems ironed out.
[00:20:57] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
The story there, is, it’s not perfect yet. I don’t have the perfect team in place. I can very clearly see the ways that different people are imperfect, the way that Todd is ruining our culture, or whatever it is. There’s always this very clear story people have been telling themselves, and they’re so used to telling that story. And it’s like, “Listen, you might have evidence,” and they always do.
[00:21:21] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
They always are like, “Do you want to see the emails? I can prove it. You’re not going to believe what he said to me.” And I’m like, “I believe you. I’m not here to tell you that you’re a liar.” I’m here to say that we are all more than the worst thing about us. And if we wait forever, if we wait for perfect scene partners in order to make bold choices, in order to get started on being the kind of culture, the kind of team that we want to be, if we’re waiting for perfect circumstances, you’re going to wait forever, and you will never get started.”
[00:21:50] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
The other piece of advice that I always give people, that I think is pretty critical in this work, is that, habits don’t change as quickly as circumstances do. And really, all of the things that I teach people, I tell people in every training, I don’t talk about listening skills, I talk about listening hygiene because a skill is like driving a stick shift or playing the piano. After a while, you can phone it in; you don’t have to be present-minded with it.
[00:22:16] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
That’s not what listening is, that’s not what improv is, that’s not what communicating is. You need to be present in this moment, and it’s more like hygiene. You didn’t get to learn about showering in sixth grade or whenever you do your hygiene stuff, and be like, “Sweet, I’m clean now.” It takes proactive effort every day, or you’re going to stink. That won’t be because something’s wrong with you, it’ll be because your body is functioning as it should.
[00:22:40] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
And so, when we see people and they’re, “stinky”, for the purposes of this analogy, it’s really easy to get stuck proving to yourself, and proving to anyone who will listen to you, that they stink, that they have fallen off with their listening hygiene, their communication hygiene, instead of realizing, “Okay. Well, how can I encourage hygiene? Maybe I can provide soap, instead of deciding that this person isn’t worth my time, or that this is a critical problem.”
[00:22:40] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Those habits that you make of deciding what kind of person you’re dealing with, and then getting married to that story, those habits don’t change as quickly as circumstances do. That person could leave your team tomorrow, and you will still be the kind of person, to use your own language, “That’s just decided, I’m going to commit to this narrative. I am going to be constantly stacking people up, and evaluating, and deciding who’s worth my time and investment, and who’s not.” Or, “I’m the kind of leader that is looking for problems instead of solutions.” Do you get what I’m saying?
[00:23:48] Betty Collins
Oh, I do.
[00:23:50] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Those habits that you make in your brain, they don’t change as fast as circumstances do. I had a client who was stuck on this awful hamster wheel with this investor that they hated, and they had grown from- these numbers are not exactly- it was something like 15 employees to 70 employees in a year, which in startup world is just insane.
[00:24:08] Betty Collins
That was crazy.
[00:24:08] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
And so, that changes everything about your culture. So, I was working with the newly-hired HR person about, how can we address some of these culture issues? And when I was talking with their leaders, they were like, “Well, we can’t really do anything about this, because this investor, this investor, this investor.” And it’s like, “In six months this person might not be here, and you’re still building a culture where we’re pretty much addicted to worry, at this point.” Anyhow, so I didn’t mean to ramble, you can cut the last five minutes out of your time.
[00:24:38] Betty Collins
No, that’s perfectly fine. You fit in right with my podcast, it’s what I do. But I do want to wrap it up. First, I want to say thank you for coming today, in between virtual school, or kids home school, and your office, and all the stuff that is going on. And spending time with my audience is very appreciated. And again, I want you to leave them with that one sentence on what is mindful improv, because I love it, but I will never be able to say it back. So, to just give us that last tidbit.
[00:25:09] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Absolutely. So, mindful improv is, first of all, being present in this moment with curiosity instead of judgment.
[00:25:09] Betty Collins
[00:25:18] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
And second of all, being empowered to know that you are currently building whatever is going to come next, and you have the freedom to decide what will happen next. You’re building it with your scene partner, it’s not decided for you.
[00:25:32] Betty Collins
That’s perfect. Now, how could we find you? I know you’re probably on all kinds of social media platforms, and your contact information, but give us the place that just gets us to you. What’s your website?
[00:25:46] Andrea Flack-Wetherald
Andbeyondimprov.com is where you can go. If you’re interested in doing an improv workshop, that’s great. I do a lot of- well, in a pre- pandemic world, I loved speaking at events. When events are a thing again, I will be glad to speak at your event. I also do more individual coaching, that’s less of the workshop, improv game stuff, and more, really, down into the heart of leadership. But yeah, you can find all of that information at andbeyondimprov.com.
[00:26:19] Betty Collins
Well, today we learn. If you want different results, try a different approach. I think this has a lot to it, I think we just touched the surface of it today. And we will have all kinds of information about Andrea and her companies that you’ll be able to find on this podcast, so you can connect to her. And I’m Betty Collins, and I’m so glad you joined me today. Inspiring women, it’s what I do. And I leave you with this; being strong speaks of strength, but being courageous speaks to having a will to do more and overcome.
Betty Collins, CPA, Brady Ware & Company and Host of the “Inspiring Women” Podcast
Betty Collins is the Office Lead for Brady Ware’s Columbus office and a Shareholder in the firm. Betty joined Brady Ware & Company in 2012 through a merger with Nipps, Brown, Collins & Associates. She started her career in public accounting in 1988. Betty is co-leader of the Long Term Care service team, which helps providers of services to Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and nursing centers establish effective operational models that also maximize available funding. She consults with other small businesses, helping them prosper with advice on general operations management, cash flow optimization, and tax minimization strategies.
In addition, Betty serves on the Board of Directors for Brady Ware and Company. She leads Brady Ware’s Women’s Initiative, a program designed to empower female employees, allowing them to tap into unique resources and unleash their full potential. Betty helps her colleagues create a work/life balance while inspiring them to set and reach personal and professional goals. The Women’s Initiative promotes women-to-women business relationships for clients and holds an annual conference that supports women business owners, women leaders, and other women who want to succeed. Betty actively participates in women-oriented conferences through speaking engagements and board activity.
Betty is a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and she is the President-elect for the Columbus Chapter. Brady Ware also partners with the Women’s Small Business Accelerator (WSBA), an organization designed to help female business owners develop and implement a strong business strategy through education and mentorship, and Betty participates in their mentor match program. She is passionate about WSBA because she believes in their acceleration program and matching women with the right advisors to help them achieve their business ownership goals. Betty supports the WSBA and NAWBO because these organizations deliver resources that help other women-owned and managed businesses thrive.
Betty is a graduate of Mount Vernon Nazarene College, a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and a member of the Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants. Betty is also the Board Chairwoman for the Gahanna Area Chamber of Commerce, and she serves on the Board of the Community Improvement Corporation of Gahanna as Treasurer.
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