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Conversations that Count: The Merits of the Improv Analogy

June 16th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

One of the most difficult problems in any given discussion is identifying what “the right thing to do” is. The question is extraordinarily difficult because so much of the answer depends upon the particular circumstances of the group, the desired ends, and other factors. It is almost an impossible question to answer in the abstract.

Here, though, is where the analogy to improv theater is helpful. Because the script hasn’t been written yet and there are lots of potential endings, what counts as the right action by the actors is not at all clear. The ambiguity of the situation demands individual actors who are thoughtful and sensitive to the various factors that make one decision right and another decision wrong.  This means that legalism--or the idea that one action will work in every circumstances--is not an option for effective improv actors or discussion leaders.

However, that is not to say that improv depends upon relativism, or that discussion leading depends upon relativism. There is a right and wrong in discussion leading, just as there are rules to improv theater. Excellent improv actors and groups play within the rules when they set their scene. While each situation calls for a different response, not every response is created equal.

Such “rules for discussion” may be hard to identify and articulate, but they are there. I will make my attempt in the next post.

The idea that there are rules, though, undercuts the notion that “rightness” in a discussion or in improv a matter of personality. This is, perhaps, the most common confusion people have in discussion, and quite prevalent even in circles of people who would otherwise eschew relativism. It would bother me immensely when people explained away actions in a classroom as a matter of “style.” While each person is going to have their style, excellence does not depend upon having a certain personality type.

What does excellence in improv theater or discussion leading depend upon? Virtue. Virtuous people will be able to see what is best in otherwise ambiguous situations and know how to bring it about. Virtuous discussion leaders will gain wisdom, or the ability to act within the rules of discussion for a desirable end or goal. How does this work? I will forestall answering until my next post (which will be up on Sunday afternoon).

Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.

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.