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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Fostering Conversations that Count: The Rules of Improv as a Model for Discussion

June 1st, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

According to the roadmap for this series, this post marks the transition from Part One of the series to Part Two. Congratulations to me for making it this far, and thanks for all the encouraging feedback!!

Ultimately, reading about being a discussion leader won’t be sufficient for learning to lead great discussions.  Like most skills (and I still contend it’s a skill!), effective discussion leading takes practice, practice, practice.

But making “mistakes” and being “successful” depend upon theory.  As such, it is helpful to have a lens, or a framework, through which we can reflect about our performance.  Tied to this lens is a language, a way of speaking.  Having a vocabulary at our disposal allows us to assess our own performance and communicate about it with others.  Eventually, the groups that I have had conversations with have all had a “shared vocabulary” emerge throughout the series of conversations.  Such a shared vocabulary or “language game” enabled their communication (and also, I should note, hindered them at points).

To the end, then, of enhancing discussion leaders’ ability to evaluate their own performances, I have begun articulating what goes on in discussion through the lens of improv theater.  My brother is an improv guy, so he’s got all the practical experience.  I’ve only thought about it a lot, read one immensely helpful book, and had a gazillion conversations with my former boss about the relationship. While the analogy certainly isn’t particular to me, using the language of improv to describe the process of discussion has been extraordinarily helpful and illuminating.  Consider:

The actors are everyone who participates in a discussion, including the discussion leader.

There stage is twofold:  1)  The room that the discussion occurs within, and 2) the text that the discussion is about.  The text is a type of metaphysical meeting ground for the discussion, and as such can function as a stage.

The script is the discussion itself, which makes improv theater a better metaphor than traditional theater.  In improv, the script (including the conflict and the resolution) emerge from the actors’ contributions.  It’s not fixed.

As an analogy for discussion, improv theater is better than any I have yet come across.  It captures the tension within a discussion--there is a goal, but it’s not clear what it is or how the scene is going to get there.  And as any person who has done improv theater will tell you, excellence demands everyone working together.

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.