For the past 10 months I’ve been part of an improvisational acting group. I really love improv theatre and I have some friends who are professional improvisers in the city. It’s a bit of a throwback because I started out in the acting field after high school, and I even did some professional improv ever so briefly over 20 years ago.

Last weekend was our big performance after learning and practicing for almost a year. What fun we had! It was 90 minutes of improv comedy games using input from the audience. I am super proud of myself for committing to this process and really working hard at developing my skills and stretching my comfort zone.

But improv is more than entertainment; it’s a philosophy. The principles of improv are well aligned with many types of personal growth work, with mindfulness practices, with some business advice, and even with conflict resolution skills.  Here are some highlights of the improv philosophy, as discovered during my recent escapades:

  1. I am not in control. I may have ideas about what the scene is about or where it’s going, but so do the other actors on stage. With no script showing the way it’s a bit like pointing your skis down the mountain and waiting to see what happens. I’m kidding myself if I think I’m the one running this show. When I’m negotiating with someone it’s the same thing; I’m involved in a collaboration. I can’t make someone agree with me or do what I want just because that’s how I think things should go.
  2. Life is continual making it up as we go along. I can turn the scene in a new direction almost anytime I want, perhaps by introducing new information, announcing the existence of another character, or just walking off stage. I have this power in my life too even though I might forget. This could be scary or liberating, depending on my perspective. Resolving conflicts can be equally creative and equally seat-of-my-pants. Because if something isn’t working between two people and must be changed, a real solution will be something brand new that hasn’t been tried before.
  3. Accept offers (say yes). When the audience tells us the scene is located in a barber shop, we accept this. When my scene partner directs me to sit in a chair and says, “Do you want the usual?” I accept that he is the barber and I am the customer and we build a scene using this premise. It would be nonsensical for me to reply, “No, I’m here to read the meter.” This is known as blocking, which basically means putting up obstacles to your scene partner. In conflict resolution saying yes is all about coming to the table, being ready to dialogue, and showing that you are serious about moving forward. You don’t have to agree to offers or demands, but you do need to say yes to the process.
  4. Risk looking foolish. Are you one of those people who only dances after you’ve had a few drinks? Improv isn’t for you then. And neither is collaborative conflict resolution.
  5. Make bold choices. On stage we like to portray the height of action and intensity of emotions because improv should be engaging to both the audience and the players. I also like my life to be super interesting. Simply choosing to negotiate or mediate is often a bold choice, and truly showing up for conflict resolution is bold because of the emotional intensity and possibility of radical change. If you’re brave enough to consider radical change you will be rewarded with an interesting life.
  6. Learn to be comfortable in the unknown. Because that’s all there is, right? Last time I checked the future was undetermined.
  7. Accept mistakes. Given points #2 and #6, there’s going to be a lot of them so get used to it.
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