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Conversations that Count: The Rules of Discussion

June 17th, 2007 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

“The codes is more what you’d call……guidelines.” Or so says the inimitable Captain Barbossa of Pirates of the Caribbean.

When it comes to the rules of leading discussions, it’s an important truth to keep in mind: the excellent discussion leader discerns which principles apply in any given situation, and applies them accordingly.

It just so happens that the rules of discussion are very similar to those of improv theater (though with some discrepancies, as Jim accurately noted). R. Keith Sawyer’s scholarly Improvised Dialogues helpfully categorized the principles that improv actors understand and operate by. I draw much of my language here from his excellent work.

1) No blocking. When an improv actor introduces a new development in the scene, the other actors must accept it in some form if the scene is going to move forward. For instance, if John walks on stage and screams “Fire” with a panicked look, the other actors must respond by elaborating, modifying or accepting it in some other way. What they cannot do is say, “No there isn’t.” It may be funny, but it kills the scene. In discussion, the principle of accepting and modifying remarks is the same. While there is obviously some give here–not every comment can be acknowledged or modified, and some might have to be rejected entirely–on the whole, discussion leaders should say “Yes, and…” far more than they say “no.” Creating a culture of “yes, and…” or “yes, but…” will help the discussion move forward smoothly. It is, in fact, one of the most important rules of all of discussion leading.

2) Everyone writes the script. In this classic scene from The Office, Michael completely dominates the improv scene. But in doing so, he doesn’t allow anyone else to contribute to the script. As such, the scene is limited to Michael’s own thoughts and his own creativity. Unless he’s a genius (he’s not, and most of us aren’t either!), he’ll hamper the creative potential of the whole group. So it is in discussion. Everyone has to contribute to the script–it is not enough for one or two people to talk. And while “contribute” may look different depending upon each individuals’ role within the group, great discussions depend upon every person being fully engaged.

3) Don’t write the script in your head. This is similar to the previous item, except framed negatively. When actors do take over scenes, it’s often because they have an idea for where the scene should go. In other words, they’ve written the script in their head and it is left for the other actors to fit in to that script. Such a strategy is nothing less than a domineering power play that doesn’t acknowledge the many other (equally or even more valuable) directions the conversation could go if the other members contributed.

This is a key lesson for discussion leaders to keep in mind. It is so easy to write the script in our head, especially when we have a good idea that we really want students to see. Save it for a lecture–you’ll stifle their curiosity if you turn the discussion into a guessing game. This is extremely difficult for educators, though, as it means relinquishing control of the discussion in a very important way. It means that educators can not force students to see an idea, but can only lead students to see an idea. If you write the script in your head, you’ll only be able to force students to see what you’re seeing. Real education, though, is not nor ever will be cumpolsary in that way.
4) Be comfortable with ambiguity, at least for a while. Because the script of the scene emerges from each characters’ contributions, there is a period where the conflict and characters are ambiguous. While the ambiguity of the scene is lessened at every turn, the speed at which characters make the situation clear depends upon the nature of the improv skit and the time allotted. In short games, it has to develop very quickly. In longer games, it is important for improv actors to not determine the scene too quickly.

So in discussions. There is almost always a period where the discussion could go in any direction. Most people (students and leaders both!) don’t like the ambiguous period, if only because it’s when we are most conscious of our lack of control. As a result, students and teachers will write the script for the class as a way of minimizing the ambiguous stage. Such a strategy, though, often over simplifies the scene by not allowing nuances and multiple voices to be put on the table. While that may be okay for shorter discussions (half an hour or less), it is a doomed strategy for longer discussions. Writes Sawyer:

In the early moments of an improvisational performance, many ambiguities are left open. The tendency to resolve ambiguities is a common mistake among intermediate-level performers; once actors reach this level, they must often be taught to continue to the scene in the presence of ambiguity. Otherwise, there would be no work to do in the remainder of the scene; these ambiguities and inconsistencies act as the source of tension which drives the performance. (117)

Conclusion:  There are, of course, crucial differences between improv theater and discussion. Most notably, improv actors are discouraged from asking questions (except, of course, in games where they can only ask questions). Questions are, however, one of the most valuable tools a discussion leader has in their toolbox. And the notion of “no blocking” clearly needs refinement–if only because of time constraints, it’s not clear that every comment can find its way into the script. But such discrepancies do not minimize the enormous value of the “improv metaphor” for discussion.

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.