Last night I had a chance to assist at an improvisation class, playing the role of mediator to actors working out various conflict situations. The class arose out of some discussions with the teacher, Rob Watzke, about the similarities between the techniques used in improvisation and mediation. In both situations, careful listening is imperative. You must be sensitive to the content as well as the emotional underpinnings of statements made by other participants in order to advance the process. In both situations, it is also important to stay positive. Whatever new bit of material is offered to you by a fellow improviser, you must use it. You cannot reject it, or the scene dies. Similarly, in mediation, it is better to thank the other side for their proposals, and make a counter-proposal, rather than to simply reject or attack the other side. In both improv and mediation, creativity is also key to success. Improvisers are encouraged to come up with all kinds of crazy suggestions, sometimes the crazier the better, as these fresh additions lead the scene in new directions. Mediators also encourage the participants to brainstorm to come up with creative solutions that might satisfy the interests of both sides.
The actors I had a chance to work with were very talented and a lot of fun. But after watching them create some warm-up scenes, I could see some of them having difficulty doing scenes that asked them to try to win an argument, but most had no trouble at all enacting an argument they were trying to lose. It seemed that improvisation training makes it difficult for these actors to do what comes naturally to people embroiled in real conflict. Parties in conflict are generally focused only on proving their own points. They are unable even to recognize what the other side is saying. To the extent they even pay attention to the other side's points, they do so only to prepare their response. That's why a mediator is often needed to transmit the other side's perspective in a way that might be absorbed.
Parties in conflict could be compared to actors who work from memorized scripts. They only listen to the other side enough to recognize their own cue to speak. Actors trained in improvisation, on the other hand, are always trying to build something from the information the other player is giving them. They had some trouble with an assignment that simply asked them to try to "win" the argument, because they couldn't help but pay attention to the information the other party was giving them, and try to incorporate it into the scene. Their training also kept them focused on guiding the scene toward a satisfying resolution, rather than going around in circles pointlessly, as people in actual conflict tend to do.
So when my turn came to act as mediator in various scenarios that resembled some I have handled in real life, I found these actors very good at expressing emotion and setting up a conflict. I was also amazed at all the new material they kept adding to the conflict. But then I found it was much too easy to lead them to resolution. These people were actually trying to search for the underlying motivations that led themselves and their partner into the conflict, and find their own ways out of it. So we quickly found out, for example, that the guy complaining about his neighbor's barking dog was only doing so because of his own childhood trauma at seeing the death of a family pet; and that the store manager was only piling an unfair workload on an employee because she had broken off their romantic relationship, but that she actually wanted him back if he would only change one little thing about himself. (This was probably the only employment mediation I will ever handle that was resolved by a circumcision!) In the real world, parties in conflict work hard to avoid revealing these kinds of vulnerabilities. And that's why mediations in the real world take hours, while we were able to wrap up cases on the improvisational stage in about ten minutes each. It made me think we should send divorcing couples or feuding business partners to improv class so they can learn some techniques that might make the process go a lot quicker and easier.