How Improv Comedy Can Help Resolve Conflicts

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I live in rural Maine where I co-founded an organization working with teachers around the globe to advance humane education, a field that prepares people to create a more just and peaceful future. Transforming schools, curricula, and strategies for positive change is no easy task these days. But I discovered a new powerful approach: improv comedy.

I’m far from the comedy hubs of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but we have an incredibly talented Second City-trained couple who’ve brought improv to our community both as performers and teachers. I began taking classes from them years ago and came to realize the lessons I was learning could do more than make people laugh; they could help build a better world.

The more I practiced, the more I witnessed improv’s power to cultivate a solutions-focused mindset and diminish the polarization that stymies positive change. The key lay in four core rules: building relationships, embracing “yes, and”,  bringing the love, and helping others shine.

Building relationships

The reason “building relationships” is the first rule of improv comedy is because without establishing a relationship, the actors struggle to care about each other, express relatable emotions, and move the scene forward. If the actors don’t care, neither will the audience. Improvisors must establish a relationship even when they don’t naturally relate to or like what their scene partner is doing or saying. To effectively address real-life problems, we also need to build relationships with those we don’t relate to or who do and say things we don’t like.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I was speaking at a conference and one of the other keynoters, a well-known Harvard professor, said he didn’t know anyone who voted for Trump. Was he subtly suggesting that Trump supporters were not worth knowing? Unlike him, I knew plenty of people who’d voted for Trump, and I welcomed the opportunity to understand their perspectives, which were different from my own. Our conversations helped us expand our perspectives, think in more nuanced ways, and identify solutions to problems we could both agree on.

It’s understandable that we often choose to avoid “them”—whoever we define “them” to be. Having dedicated my life to advancing women’s rights, animal protection, environmental sustainability, and social justice, it takes ongoing commitment to the value of building relationships across divides for me to seek out friendships with people who fight against a woman’s right to have an abortion, kill animals recreationally, oppose sensible environmental regulations, or say things I consider bigoted. But I know that unless I build such relationships, I’m more likely to stereotype and possibly even vilify others who have different beliefs, as well as miss opportunities to cooperatively develop solutions to problems. The more I build these relationships, the more successful I am at understanding divergent perspectives and even shifting others’ thinking.

Embracing “yes and”

The second improv rule is “yes, and,” which refers to the practice of embracing whatever premise a scene partner suggests (“yes”) and adding to the prompts they offer (“and”). Imagine an improv actor starting a scene with “Mom, I’ve entered us into the parent-child acrobatic competition at school,” and “Mom” responding, “Great Brian! We can wear the pink polka dot tights I got on eBay!” The scene is moving forward not only because a relationship was established but also because of “yes, and.”

In improv comedy, “yes, and” primes us to listen carefully and welcome others’ suggestions so we can collaborate on creating a great scene. Just imagine what would have happened in the scene above had the actor identified as “Mom” responded, “I’m not your mother, and I don’t do acrobatics.” The scene would have crashed, and the first actor would have had nowhere to go from there.

Read More: You Should Say ‘Yes’ to Every New Opportunity

In our everyday lives, “yes, and” is a mindset that asks us to look for points of agreement and then add our own ideas. Embracing “yes, and” can be quite challenging, especially around highly charged issues. Nonetheless, we can usually find some area of agreement. For example, both pro-choice and pro-life advocates generally want as few girls and women as possible to face an unwanted pregnancy. And no one wants mass shootings to persist. If we can begin with even a thread of agreement about a problem, that common ground opens the possibility for respectfully sharing ideas and paves the way for potential collaboration.

Bringing the love

Rule three, “bringing the love,” is foundational to improv comedy because conflicts on stage aren’t usually funny (unless you’re Larry David). In real life, bringing the love often requires significant effort. It’s often much easier to focus on negatives. Who expresses love for the people driving respectfully alongside us on the highway? As soon as we’re cut off in traffic, however, we may lay on the horn and practically lose our minds with fury. Extend this tendency toward society at large, and a cesspool of vitriol often spews from our psychic underworld through the comfort of our keyboards or the power of a mob. Meanwhile, solutions to problems become ever more elusive as we burn potential bridges and fuel our outrage.

In improv comedy, the actors have an advantage: they’re actively endeavoring to bring the love. In real life, we’re frequently faced with others doing anything but, which makes bringing the love that much harder. Yet when we successfully meet hostility with love—to the degree that this is possible and makes sense—it’s not uncommon to watch that love melt another’s anger. When this happens, even solving our most intractable problems seems possible.

Helping others shine

Finally, improvisers strive to “help others shine.” They know that as their fellow actors shine, so shines the scene. As in improv comedy, so in life. Adopting this rule offers us a way to dial down our desire for the spotlight in favor of a bigger goal. As more of us seek out, learn from, and share whatever is worthy of light—and amplify the voices of those doing good work that’s flying under the radar—building humane and sustainable societies may even become likely.

I didn’t expect that improv would be key to effectively addressing the real-world problems I cared about—or that its four core rules would guide so much of my life’s work. Just as developing good improv skills requires practice, it takes practice to apply these rules in real life.

Establishing such a practice isn’t easy. It requires a commitment to listening, staying present, and remaining open. But the more we practice, the greater the rewards: more meaningful relationships, increased curiosity and creativity, and successful collaboration to uncover and implement solutions to the thorny problems we face.

Adapted from The Solutionary Way: Transform Your Life, Your Community, and The World For the Better. by Zoe Weil, published by New Society Publishers. Copyright © 2024 by Zoe Weil. Reprinted courtesy of New Society Publishers.

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