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Discussion as Improv: Serve the Others

Yes And

New participants in an Interactivity Foundation discussion project often wonder how to act when taking part in the discussion. Often when people hear that we’ll be engaged in thoughtful civic discussion, they think of this in terms of “debate” or “argument.” With the help of the comedian and political satirist Stephen Colbert, I’d like to suggest a different way to think of these discussions—not as “debate” but as “improvisation.” I think this can be a helpful way for discussion participants and facilitators alike to think of their participation.

To participate in a debate is to compete—to try to win an argument and defeat an opponent’s position. To participate in improvisation is to serve—to try to generate something new by sharing with others. Colbert talks about this in his recent Northwestern University commencement speech:

Now there are very few rules to improvisation, but one of the things that I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is that you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv.

And, I would add, you cannot “win” an Interactivity Foundation discussion. But if you participate as if your discussion partners are the most important persons in the room, you’ll pay more attention to the ideas they bring up and you’ll try to help flesh them out and develop them. And if everyone is serving each other like this, the result will be new ideas coming into the discussion, perhaps ideas that no one individual had fully foreseen.

Colbert says, “life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.” Making things up may sound like something fake or childish, like you’re just playing. But play can be serious and the means of creation. It can mean making something new, generating something, bringing something to be that wasn’t there before. And that’s what we’re after in an Interactivity Foundation discussion. Like improv we’re interested in creating something new, rather than knocking something down, as in a debate.

So if you’re wondering about how to participate in, or even facilitate, an Interactivity Foundation discussion, think about how you can serve the others in the discussion. Think of each other as the most important persons in the room. By paying attention to each other, following and playing with each other in this way, you’ll be on the way to building something together, creating something new.

For the closing segment of Colbert’s speech (though the whole thing is worth watching), check here: Closing Segment of Colbert’s Commencement Speech 2011

–Jeff Prudhomme