Many of us have enjoyed watching and listening to improv, especially when it is preformed by members of Second City or their alums. Few of us, however, realize that Second City has a lucrative practice, Second City Works, in which it uses improv to help corporate leaders do their jobs better. Even fewer of us have explored the implications of their work for peacebuilding. Luckily, we can all read Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton’s Yes, And for its general implications. I’ve gone into its peacebuilding implications more deeply on my blog.
They lay out their basic position on p. 6.
The individual who is armed with an improvisational tool kit has an instantaneous advantage in dealing with all manner of difficult situations that naturally arise in the course of one’s career.
What they mean by that is actually pretty simple but not something we think of all the time. Too often, we work with others and our first reaction to their ideas is to say, “yes, but” after which you start laying out your objections and reservations. In improv, one person “hands off” to another whose job it is to say, “yes, and” and then take the story farther. In Second City’s comedy routines, the second actor using yes, and to make the story funnier. In organizational settings, the same question tends to open up more possibilities rather than close them down as. “yes, but” tends to do. In business as well as in improv, yes-anding requires you to listen and then co-create alternatives with your partner(s).
Adopting yes, and as a tool actually frees the second and subsequent people in a discussion to loosen their inhibitions and think creatively because they job is to add something to what is already on the table. As they see it, that leads to all kinds of benefits at the workplace:
- It becomes easier to build teams that work together
- It encourages people to collaboratively brainstorm and take the discussion toward creative solutions
- That happens because they claim that people tend to both explore and heighten the discussion because one idea is offered and then built upon rather than being torn apart
- It allows comedy ensembles or corporate leadership tams to gradually build toward one large, but solid, idea or project
- It is hard to remain fixated on your own idea
- You have to deal with failure constructively. All improv actors have had to deal with klunker lines they were given by the person ahead of them in the ensemble. Even if the person before you has done something stupid (or said something that isn’t remotely funny), your job is to make something out of the verbal hand of cards you’ve been dealt
- Hierarchical relationships tend to wither away. In other words, it is hard to be a bully and succeed at improv
Leonard and Yorton make it clear that you can’t improv your way out of all disputes. It isn’t likely to work if the two sides have to deal with deeply held ethical principles.
How would use improv in peacebuilding? Probably in exactly the same way that Second City uses it in corporate setting.
You would first find that a second truth from Second City’s work applies to peacebuilding, too. Improv is usually done by ensembles that spend a lot of time practicing and working together. Yes-anding is not easy and often requires lots of training and coaching, which are among the services Second City provides for its corporate clients. They have lots of exercises that help people do it, many of which are in the appendix to the book. None of them is easy. But they all lead a group in new and constructive directions.
- Talk without using the word “I” very much.
- Practice the art of give and take. The improv “hand off” only works if the second person in the improv chain does not assume that he or she has all the answers and that the person he or she is responding to has had something useful to build o
- An improv ensemble learns to be flexible and to be surprised when one of its members does or says something unusual
- An improv team (or a company or a group of peacebuilders) only succeed when everyone takes responsibility for coming up with a successful outcome—humor in the case of improv and a more just and peaceful society for the kinds of people I work with
- Successful improv ensembles take risks on the assumption that the entire group will come up with something that works, however non-linear (and zany) way to get there turns out to be
- Improv tends to be cumulative. In other words, each person’s contribution comes together to build a bigger story. It becomes cumulative, because each new person adds something to the narrative.
- Improv only works if the members of the ensemble and their audience continue
The Second City team would never claim that improv is the only conflict resolution tool we need. There are times when it would be inappropriate as, for example, when a team has two deal with sharply contrasting or even contradictory ethical positions. There probably has to be some common ground. And, it is probably true that some leaders are not well-suited to this kind of work. I wrote this review the day before Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were scheduled to hold their first summit in Singapore. Somehow I doubt “yes, and” is in either man’s repertoire.
I’ve spent a lot of time working with people I disagree with on some very basic issues, including Evangelical Christians and senior military officers. Even before I read this book, I used versions of Yes, And in my dealings with the “other side.” It has worked for me. I now think of yes-anding people all the time.
Alas, I’m not sure it has made me any funnier.