Stop Being So Stubborn and Stuck
Theatrical improvisation can be our model for staying open to new ideas.
Posted January 6, 2020
As we start a new year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how stubborn and stuck people can be. We think our political candidate is the only one who should be elected, our belief is the only one that serves humanity, and that our idea is the only one that should ever see the light of day.
I know it’s a cliché—maybe a super cliché at this point—that we live in divided times. Nowadays, it seems like being right is often more important than being helpful. And that's a problem.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how this would never work during improvisation. Never would I reject my fellow improviser’s idea just because it wasn’t mine.
A Meditation on Embracing Other Points of View
This is why I’d like to start the year meditating on how improvisation can, and I hope will, serve as a model for us to embrace uncertainty but also, more importantly, other people’s ideas and points of view.
I want to start my meditation with a quote from Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim Johnson’s Truth in Comedy. They write:
Having an idea is not bad in itself… It is vitally important, however, for an improviser to drop his idea immediately the moment the scene takes an unexpected twist.
It’s not bad that we have ideas. In fact, I would argue that it’s a great thing that we all have values, beliefs, opinions, and ideals. You have to stand for something, right?
In an improvised scene, I might enter the space thinking I’m a pilot. No harm done.
What we’re not supposed to do is hold on to our idea for dear life even after the scene has turned in a new direction.
Let’s say the first thing out of my scene partner’s mouth is: “I’ll take a grande double latte.” Now, I could fight for my pilot idea. I could be a barista and pilot and struggle to make that work. But why fight so hard for my own idea when my scene partner’s might be better?
The answer? Uncertainty. I stick with my pilot idea because I’m scared of uncertainty. I know what being a pilot will bring. After all, it is my idea. However, I haven’t even begun to think about being a barista, so I’m uncomfortable with the uncertainty that my partner’s choice is going to bring to the scene.
Think about how this plays out in our everyday lives.
Our friend tells us that they are voting for Candidate A. We don’t even let the idea sink in before rejecting it wholesale. My candidate is better and nothing you can say will convince me otherwise.
We are a firm believer in religion A. No listening required. Anything you say against my religion is either ignored or railed against.
We have an idea for how to expedite a system at work. Our co-worker suggests a different idea, but we’re so married to our own that we shut theirs down before listening to its merits.
Loosening Our Grip on Our Ideas
Research is beginning to show that we use avoidant behavior to deal with anxiety, but this same avoidant behavior causes us to miss out on a whole lot of potential positive experiences—positive experiences that come out of uncertainty.
I would argue that we’ve become an anxious culture, fighting tooth and nail to avoid the uncertainty of other people’s views, beliefs, and ideas.
But the only way out is through.
Just as with anxiety disorders, we need some exposure therapy so we can get used to the idea that the uncertainty of other people’s ideas is actually not that bad and could potentially lead to something better than we alone could conceive.
Having a point of view, belief, or idea is not bad in and of itself, and I’m not suggesting we drop ours when someone has an opposing view, but we have to start doing better about inviting other ideas in.
Let’s go back to my pilot/barista example. I thought I was going to be a pilot, so I was doing my pilot walk and moving my head how I think pilots move their heads. So even when I drop the idea that I’m a pilot because my scene partner tells me I’m a barista, I still keep my idea going through my actions. I’m still pilot-like.
Only now, our scene can get on with it. We can explore the places our diverse ideas connect and combine, instead of getting bogged down in whether or not I’m a pilot, whether or not I’m right.
That’s my hope for the new year. I hope we can loosen our grip on our ideas and approach diverse viewpoints with a level of openness. After all, the heart of the scene emerges out of the uncertainty of how our ideas can come together, not from being right or wrong.
Halpern, C. (1994). Del Close, and Kim Johnson. Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation, 16.