Playing By the Rules: When Mediation is Like Improv

By Laura Melton Tucker, December 17th, 2009

Listen to this entry.

Mediation may not be a laughing matter, but it shares some similarities with improv comedy.  This comparison came to me when I read a recent New York Times article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the renowned Chicago improv comedy troupe, Second City.   Around the same time, a friend called to tell me about performing improv at a workshop.  She described the experience as a lesson in self-discovery.  “The whole point of the exercise,“ she explained, “was for the group to practice the rules of improv to see which ones were hardest to follow.  Each one of us butted heads against at least one of the rules.  It became a mini-therapy session.  Our rule-breaking during our performances pointed us to our underlying issues.”  Say more!  Tell me everything.  I love Rorschach type tests, and this sounded like a good one.

The three rules of improv taught at the workshop can also be read as rules for life, and, I believe,  for mediation, as well:

1.  Always agree, never deny, don’t block.
2.  Be present and listen.
3.  Have a plan; let go of the plan when necessary.

Rule number one, according to my friend, was the most popular trouble spot for the workshop participants.  In improv, the audience (or acting coach) shouts out parameters for the action on stage.  The audience tells the actors who they are, where they are, and what they’re doing.  What unfolds spontaneously is both entertaining and meaningful.  But, many actors want to control the action by negating what has come before.  For instance, when one stage partner announces that he sees an antelope in downtown New York City, the other actor MAY NOT counter with, “Oh no you don’t.  That’s a reindeer and we’re on a rooftop in Milwaukee.”  This is cheating and the audience doesn’t like it.  On stage, in life, and at the mediation table, we may want to deny what we hear and see in order to be in control, but affirming and adding, rather than blocking, delivers a better path forward.

Rule number two is tricky for nervous types who want to manage their exposure on stage.  Some actors let their stage partners yak away while planning their next bit of dialogue.  By not listening they miss their cues and the subtle shifts in dialogue.  The audience grows weary when one or more actors are in their minds and not in the moment.  On stage, in life, and at the mediation table, bad listeners miss opportunities galore.

Rule number three tripped up my friend.  She started the improv without a plan.  Not having a direction placed her squarely in a mess of her own making.  On the other hand, I’m sure my failing on stage would have been a variation on this – not letting go of a plan when it becomes irrelevant.  My dogged diligence in life (I WILL make this work…) might leave me clinging to a plan beyond its usefulness. On stage, in life and at the mediation table, a plan can keep the process moving forward, but when events or conversations take an unexpected turn, we must drop the old plan in favor of a new one born in the moment.

The improv rules are ripe with takeaways for mediators.  As mediators, we need to be present and listening so that we can affirm the conversation taking place at the table, and guide the process so that the participants remain open to hearing one another’s perspectives.  Starting off the mediation with a general plan for how to guide the conversation is a good practice; this is how we help our clients make the best use of their time.  However, once the conversation veers off course, good mediators follow closely along, because in mediation, (and improv and life) there’s no such thing as off course, of course.  Mediators – present, engaged, and affirming –  meld a new plan appropriate to the new direction of the conversation.  Guiding the process without directing it, mediators help the conversation stay productive and useful, as defined by the parties sitting at the table. And for the record, these three rules of improv apply to the holidays, too.  Always agree and affirm, never block (this rule is for my husband, especially!) be present and listen, and make your plan for events and outings, knowing that mid-course, you may need to head off somewhere you never considered going.  Cheers!

5 Responses

  • Mark says:

    Wow. Well done. Your clients are fortunate to have such a mindful mediator. These rules work for practicing meditation also.

  • Mark, thanks for your comment. I agree that the rules also apply to meditation. Maybe they should be called the “universal rules for consciousness!”

  • Greg Stone says:

    Years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Viola Spolin who, along with her son, launched the improvisation movement in Chicago.

    Her goal, however, was not entertainment, but rather working with kids who were having difficulty. The “games” were meant to draw the children into social interaction they might otherwise avoid. The game structure, with its rules for each “game,” provided social learning through doing, through acting.

    It was only later that the improvisation games were adopted by the theatre and put to use in Second City.

    Thus, when we look at using improvisation for mediation, we are returning to improvisation’s roots as a tool to improve social interaction.

    Viola’s book Improvisation for the Theater may be of interest. In it she lists various games to be used.

  • Greg, I am fascinated by your post. Thanks for telling me about Viola Spolin. I didn’t realize that improvisational theater has its roots in therapy; what a genius way to work with troubled kids, though. I will look for Viola’s book.

  • greg stone says:

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