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Conversations that Count: The Body of Discussion

October 4th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Improv theater, which encompasses comedy and dramatic theater, happens on a stage. That is, improve theater occurs within a defined space, and consequently within a defined time. As such, it is an "incarnational" media.

Not surprisingly, discussion is equally embodied. It happens in space and time. It's a trivial point, but most discussion leaders overlook the incarnational nature of discussion when they plan their groups. Being aware of how the body works should affect the discussion in three ways, each of which discussion leaders should be aware of as they are planning and leading their group:

1) The environment: Our environment affects us in unnoticeable ways. This is as true of discussion as it is for anything else. For instance, if the “stage” of the discussion is arranged such that there are chairs lined up in rows, the discussion will almost inevitably be filtered through the person standing at the front of the room. Any dialog that does occur will struggle to draw everyone in, as they will not be facing each other.

Choosing the environment and arranging it accordingly will largely depend upon what sort of discussion you wish to have. If you are interested in having an academically rigorous conversation, couches and dim lighting may prove counterproductive (I know, I've tried this). If you want an intimate conversation among friends, a windowless classroom is not a very conducive location.

2) Their own body: As the de facto leader in the room, excellent discussion leaders can dictate the energy in a discussion through their eyes, their posture and their hands. What they do with their body can often determine what others do with their body. I used to find that when I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling in thought, the conversation would continue but the energy level would drop. However, when the discussion reached critical points, I would sometimes lean into the middle of the room or even touch a student on the shoulder to heighten the impact of the moment.

A corollary lesson is to watch participants' bodies during the discussion to measure engagement. When participants are engaged, they will sit forward on their chairs, lean forward over the table, etc. In other words, they change their posture. This is true of audiences, too. Knowing how to read a group like this can be helpful for determining when and how to affect energy levels in the room.

Conclusion: The pursuit of ideas through discussion is not a disembodied one—rather, as anyone who has participated in discussions for longer than two hours knows, discussion is an excellent opportunity to “submit the members of [our bodies]” as members of righteousness. Discussion is a microcosm for real life, and hence an opportunity for the sanctification of leaders and participants alike.

I have spent some 850 hours participating in discussions and another 700 leading them. These are my reflections on what went well and what didn’t. If you want to hear more or have me speak to your church, your youth group or others about how to use discussion effectively, contact me at Matthew.L.Anderson at Gmail.Com

Other posts in the series:

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.