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The Jewel of Denial

diamond ring resting on pearls

This is a sequel to CJ Bergin’s “Romancing the Funny Bone”. What happens when a relationship moves beyond the first date? What can an improv mindset do to help management conflict?

When two or more people interact for a long enough time, conflict is inevitable. Conflict is a difference of views that comes from our varied experiences, our worldview along with our cultural background and values. Conflict not about right or wrong but about the different way we see things. It can be socially useful. It can maintain relationships while generating new norms and new institutions. But only is if it is the “good” kind. The kind that comes from the tension created by tugging at the common interests of both sides to make the outcome the best it can be.

Improv scenes reveal a similar dynamic. The players observe each other, connect and respond to the new information they offer each other. These “offers” are traded back and forth. If the connection takes hold they will discover the “game” of the scene. That unusual thing that grows between them and begins to bubble over with play. Trust that fuels the fun.

The opposite of a gift comes in the form of a denial. If you decide the sky is purple, then your scene partner shouldn’t say that’s stupid and make it blue again. When a player rejects an offer then the scene takes on the same air as the start of a disagreement. Silence followed by fighting. “Bad” conflict.

With improv, fighting in a scene can be problematic. It has the same flavor as the real thing. Scene partners tend to forget the “game” of the scene and focus solely on denying each other. The characters’ relationships cleave and the whole scene loses its luster.

Conflict can have a similar path. Initially, parties will establish positions, digging their heels in on opposite sides of some opinion. The more they try to convince each other they are wrong, the more they deny the other’s position. The more they defend their position, the more their opponent doubles down. It’s called the backlash effect.

It doesn’t matter if it is a couple who have moved way beyond the initial glow of the first date or two countries on the very brink of war. Unless common interests emerge from the position each party holds and a relationship is established to nurture those interests, then the conflict will escalate.

“Fight scenes are so tricky that teachers generally tell beginners to avoid them completely… We need to fight in scenes; we just have to learn how to fight well.” ~ Will Hines: “How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth

Hines has a great analogy that helps bring home the difference between “good” and “bad” conflict.

“A fight done well is a fun dance. Picture two people running together, side by side, and then one of them suddenly decides to turn around and run backward. Now one of them is facing the wrong direction, but they’re both still running together [in the same direction].”

What is it about improv that stops it tripping backward? It’s the bias toward building by “Yes and”ing coupled with the connection the players make. It comes from the shared story they tell about other. It comes from the curiosity the players generate as they find their way forward from the uncertain start of a scene.

During difficult discussions, if I can find even a small nugget that seems like a common interest, I will “Yes, and” to see where it goes. I was once working on designing a custom team building session with a colleague. The normal brainstorming approach was to toss ideas out and critique them. Questioning each other had the same effect of questioning in an improv scene. It caused us to either continually justify our position or give up in the face of denials.

One day I decided not so much to agree with everything he said but to accept his ideas as an offer and see how I could build on them rather than cut them down. It was like playful alchemy. Suddenly our leaden debates were transforming into gilded collaborations. Ideas took a natural course, fading or shining until we had the design of a session we both were invested in. He commented how much he enjoyed working with me. I put it down to the different improv dynamic we created.

Common interests are precious gifts we extract from the rocky depths of conflict and offer to each other so that we may heal and nurture our relationships. They are the jewels of denial.

Guy Winterbotham has been toiling away in the pun mines of ComedySportz® Richmond since 2017.

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