Hey Congress! Let the lessons of improv help you get to yes (and)!

This article was written by John Windmueller, the director of our WIT@Work program, which partners with government agencies, businesses, NGOs, non-profits, and other institutions to bring applied improv into the workplace. John holds a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He’s also an avid improviser.

Congress has a deadline of September 30 to pass a continuing resolution to avoid a harmful government shutdown. Negotiations over the budget have struggled and reached an impasse, all within the broader context of growing political polarization and acrimonious divisions. I’d like to suggest what might seem like an unlikely source of insight for working through difficult and intractable conflicts: improv.

I know it might seem as if I’m trivializing this conflict and its stakes to invoke improv—a type of theater that many people associate with TV shows such as, Whose Line is it Anyway or the goofy kind of comedy that gave the likes of Eugene Levy, Tina Fey, Jordan Peele, Keegan Michael Key, and others their showbiz starts.

However, I would argue that the principles and skills underlying improv comedy have an enormous amount to teach us when it comes to working together constructively to overcome severe disagreements and stalled negotiations. In fact, one of the reasons I left academia to direct WIT’s applied improv program, WIT@Work, is that I recognized that improv offers a more effective way to train people in these skills than traditional graduate classroom lectures and presentations.

With that in mind, here are three principles of improv for working through conflict, including high-stakes, real world disputes, like the one currently facing lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Lesson #1: Listen Down to the Last Word

The next time you’re in a conversation with someone, notice when you stop hearing their voice and instead start hearing your own voice in your head, planning your reply. We do this all the time, particularly in stressful, off-the-cuff conversations. One of the significant and destructive ways the fight or flight response plays out in communication is that we flee from listening. One of the strongest triggers for abandoning listening is when the person we’re speaking with says something we know is inaccurate. Immediately, we snap out of hearing them as we begin correcting them in our head.

In contrast, improvisers learn and rehearse the principle of listening down to their scene partner’s last word, despite the temptation to begin planning their next line of unscripted dialogue. Connection is at the core of creating good scenes together, and there’s no connection without listening.

Again, we’re most triggered to abandon listening when the person we’re speaking with says something we know is wrong (so wrong!). But even then—arguably, most importantly then— we need to listen down to the last word. One of the groups for which I’ve had the privilege of leading applied improv workshops is the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit, and it’s worth considering that their standard operating procedure in hostage negotiations includes what they call the “behavioral change stairway.” The primary objective of the stairway is a behavior change, which is also our end goal in negotiations.

However, the first step is listening, because without listening, there is no empathy, rapport, or influence. It’s difficult to think of a more volatile or polarized negotiation scenario than one involving the lives of hostages, but even then, listening is what must come first. This is why I advocate so strongly in favor of practicing the improv principle, and habit, of listening down to the last word regardless of whether you see the opposite side as being right or wrong. This applies as much to the boardroom as it does to the Halls of Congress.

Lesson #2: Bring a Brick, Not a Cathedral

We typically assume that preparation is the key to success, but the reality is that sometimes it can create roadblocks to effective collaboration. You’ve probably been in meetings in which everyone arrives extraordinarily well-prepared with strong agendas, but the result feels like everyone is talking at each other instead of with each other, with no effective progress forward.

This can happen in improv scenes as well. If a performer steps on stage with a complete picture in advance of how the scene is “supposed” to play out, the result is a mess as they try to steamroll over their scene partners’ ideas and contributions. This connects to a lesson from Fisher and Ury’s classic negotiation text, Getting to Yes. When difficult negotiations become stuck, instead of each party just advancing their own separate resolution and going in circles, try setting them aside and working together on a “one-text solution.” This isn’t to say that planning and agendas aren’t important and helpful, but we need to recognize when effective collaboration involves bringing a brick, not a cathedral, to the proverbial negotiating table. Or, in this analogy, the Capitol Building.

If US lawmakers took a brick-by-brick approach towards the 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government (and must be passed by the end of the month in order for it to stay open), they might well discover their collective power to drive positive changes forward.

Lesson #3: “Yes, And”

“Yes, And” is the most widely known principle in improv. It’s a simple concept: if your scene partner begins by saying, “It’s beautiful here in Hawaii,” and you reply, “No, it’s not! We’re on Mars and it’s miserable,” it will be a real challenge to reconcile these conflicting points of view and advance the scene.

But it’s worth considering why this needs to be a core concept in improv. After all, conflict is a wonderful ingredient for both drama and comedy. The reason improv leans toward agreement is because otherwise, novice improvisers can rapidly fall into the habit of defaulting to unproductive and locked conflict, creating an endless loop of dialogue, along the lines of, “You must pay the rent,” which is met by, “No, I won’t pay the rent!” Ultimately, the scene goes nowhere.

So, why do newer improvisers do this? It’s neither entertaining nor fun for them or their audience. They do it because it feels safe. Intractable conflict can be a misery—certainly for those caught up in it–-but, at the same time, it’s familiar territory. Everyone in that scene, or in any conflict for that matter, knows where it’s going (or rather, not going). Agreement means movement, and movement means change. As we all know, change is hard and an uncertain future can feel more terrifying than a well-known misery.

The improv lesson of “Yes, And” isn’t to always say “yes.” It’s to recognize that we often lean towards conflict because being stuck can feel safe, and moving forward doesn’t just mean finding common ground. It also requires curiosity, bravery, and, yes, change. I’d argue that, “Yes, Why?” and “Yes, What If?” are equally important in improv as in life.

Every time improvisers hit the stage, they make up a show entirely on the spot. It can be frightening, and there’s no principle in improv that guarantees every scene will be great or even good. In fact, a lot of hard work goes into learning and rehearsing these principles.

Dire Straits Call for Novel Ideas

In my role with the WIT@Work program, I have the privilege of partnering with a diverse range of organizations, from nonprofits and NGOs, to corporations, universities, and government agencies, all of whom are invested in discovering how applied improv can improve the way they communicate with clients and stakeholders, raise their level of collaboration and decision making, and spark creativity and innovation when tackling challenging problems. From this vantage point, I am able to witness how, in the face of uncertainty, those who are willing to say, “Yes, And” and risk change—be it big or small—are able to successfully collaborate and create something new and wonderful.

I realize how fractured our country, and the world, are at this moment, and that it might seem naive or simplistic to think that applied improv will help heal the wounds that divide us, but the status quo of divisive and vitriolic conflict clearly isn’t working—at least not for the vast majority of us—and I believe that dire straits call for novel ideas. On stage, every improv scene becomes its own collaborative and creative achievement. Wouldn’t we all love to see our government doing things in a creative and cooperative way?

Certainly, federal government workers, who were furloughed during the 35-day government shutdown that brought much of Washington DC to its knees at the end of 2018 and start of 2019, must be desperately wishing there was a way to avoid a repeat. I can already assure them that Washington Improv Theater is, once again, preparing to offer them access to free improv workshops and shows should a shutdown occur. To the lawmakers on Capitol Hill, I extend an open invitation to give the principles of applied improv a sincere try. Because when you say, “Yes, And,” and embrace its shift toward curiosity, creativity, and change, the whole country benefits.

Learn more about WIT@Work by visiting the website. The author, John Windmueller can be contacted via email: work@witdc.org

September 19, 2023