Posts tagged ‘applied improvisation’

October 10, 2012

“This too shall pass”

Jessie, Jeannie and Jean

“This too shall pass.” 

Common proverbial phrase repeated by my mother in her last days

Readers who know me personally will know that I have taken an extended break from writing CoRe Jolts as a result of “jolts” in my personal life.  The three most significant jolts were a severe concussion suffered in January 2011 (and continuing to impact my ability to read and write for several months following), the loss of my mother in late fall of 2011 and the more recent, and shockingly sudden, loss of my sister-in-law in late May.  The concussion had a serious impact on my concentration and focus, making writing extraordinarily difficult.  My mother’s passing had a different kind of effect: during several weeks of alternating hope and grief, anything I began to write seemed frivolous and unimportant.  The shock of my sister-in-law’s death by tragic accident only exacerbated that sense.  Perhaps in the face of such tragedy, a writing impasse is inevitable: whatever I write next seems to need to convey a suitable gravitas.  In other words, I am self-censoring everything against an impossible standard!

Michelle Taylor

Self-censoring occurs in so many other situations, of course.  If we think about our work as mediators, the learning mediator, worried about making “mistakes” and so taking much, much too long to say anything at all, may be the most obvious instance.  If you’re a more experienced mediator, you probably still remember those moments of thinking so hard about how to frame your question so that it is open-ended or reframe neutrally that you momentarily lose focus on what the parties are saying.  That feeling of needing to get it right is remarkably similar to the panic many people report in playing improvisational theatre games for the first time – self-censoring because the first idea that pops into your head isn’t funny enough or clever or …  I remember having the oddest moment of freezing like this in a high school drama class when it came my turn to repeat a series of noises that had been strung together by students ahead of me in line and then add my own sound effect.  Who would think you could actually get so caught up in judging your own sound effect that you would freeze?  But I did!  Realistically, I probably took a half second past the beat to add my completely uninspired noise, but it felt impossible to simply make a choice and get on with it.  I’m not sure what it might mean that I still remember that moment all these years later, except that it was a surprisingly powerful moment of self-censorship and judgment.

Happily, I have learned a few techniques for breaking out of this type of impasse over the years.  I need to – I help law students to move past self-censoring as learning mediators every year in my Mediation Clinic.   In that context, the difficulty of using unpracticed communication skills like acknowledgement of emotion, reframing, etc. creates similar impasses for some students every year.  On some level, it comes down to not wanting to “get it wrong” and consequently doing nothing!  Worrying that my blogging will somehow be too frivolous has remarkably similar results to worrying about a blunder in a mediation role play or in a real mediation – both result in a self-induced “operator” impasse.  This post then is itself an effort at impasse breaking, and focuses on breaking through the self-censoring impasses that can afflict mediators themselves.  And, of course, the same considerations may well apply to parties to a mediation who don’t want to “get it wrong” any more than the mediator does.

Jolts for Mediators or Mediation

1.  The impossible deadline

DockTimer

One of the most common techniques in applied improv work is setting an impossible deadline.  Kat Koppett captures the reasons that setting an impossible deadline is so effective in encouraging creativity in her instructions for the game “Spontaneous Marketing” (See Kat Koppett’s book at the CoRe aStore.):

“Enforcing shortish time limits helps the creative process.  If people feel that they did not have enough time, that does two things: gives them an excuse to not be brilliant, and honours their spontaneous responses without over-evaluating.”

As mediators, we certainly all focus on trying to create a non-evaluative space for brainstorming, but we usually try to do so by allowing generous time to develop our thoughts and contribute ideas.  Instead, try asking for a minimum of 2 ideas from each party in 30 seconds!  And tell the parties that you know it’s impossible to be brilliant in that time: that’s precisely why you’re asking them to try it – to eliminate over-thinking.

And we can train ourselves for greater spontaneity by engaging in many of the same warm-up games as improv performers use.  I’ve written before about variations on “Word Drill”.  You can find instructions for many similarly simple and easily adapted games online.  See for example, the Improv Encyclopedia.

And yes, I’m creating an impossible deadline for myself in getting this blog drafted: I’ve downloaded a new timer app (DockTimer) to my desktop that I’m using to kickstart all of my short writing projects.  13:42 left before this is ready to post!  After all, I can always edit later – just as parties can work with their rapidly generated ideas to develop something more polished.  What is most important in cases of severe impasse is simply getting started.

2. Forced accountability

One of my creative heroes adds an extra layer to the forced deadline that has clear applications for impasse breaking: Jane Espenson, an amazingly prolific writer for shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica and most recently, Husbands, was the first to bring the notion of a “writing sprint” to my attention, although it seems that they are a fairly common practice.

In essence, a writing sprint is a focused and discrete block of writing time that is announced to the world (often via Twitter #writingsprint), and serves as an invitation to others to join in.  While the online version has no magic checks on what you really do during your announced sprint, the announcement serves to produce a degree of accountability.

Within the workplace context, groups undertake writing sprints to develop ideas, launch projects and prepare for discussions.  The in-person writing sprint adds greater accountability and can serve as the basis for impasse breaking in a wide variety of settings.  Consider assigning a writing sprint, in combination with a very short deadline, in a mediation setting by asking individuals to create lists of criteria for resolution, negative criteria (what can’t be part of a solution is a useful tool for developing a list of interests), or simply agenda items to discuss if things are bogged down at a very early point.

3. The Obituary as Conflict Resolution Tool

In May of last year, I wrote about Gordon White‘s work in applying adult development theory to impasse breaking.  Amongst Gordon’s many suggestions for working with stubborn impasses is this jolting question to help move parties out of the rut of a focus on minutiae into a recollection of bigger picture considerations:

“What do you want people to say about your life at your funeral?”

Now that is an enormous question that could be crippling in my current state: it could easily exacerbate my self-censoring need to be profound rather than frivolous.  But let it roll around for a bit; don’t try to answer it too quickly.  With a bit of time and reflection, it becomes something quite different – a reminder that there are much more important things in life than the current conflict/impasse/etc.  In fact, it can jolt one to think about what’s really important, or it can jolt one to recognize that the immediate problem is not so overwhelming.  Either way, thinking of the bigger picture is a great way to step back from a mess of crippling detail.

Drawing on the notion of a writing sprint, in the right mediation context, parties might be asked to make a list of qualities they hope will be remembered in their obituary.  Use that list to examine or develop an approach to resolving the immediate problem – especially where there might be common values amongst parties.  For example, a person who wants to be remembered for “kindness” may embrace a conflict resolution approach within the mediation that explicitly engages in “kindness”.  That might include ground rules about specific forms of respectful listening and valuing of others’ opinions, before critiquing them.  Someone who takes pride in “efficiency” might be frustrated by the initial discussion of values, but may well be won over by the possibilities for quicker and more efficient negotiations once the process is tailored to best suit the parties.

4. Death quotes for reflection 

For the mediator seeking personal impasse breaking, an alternative approach to the big picture reflection of imagining one’s own obituary might be reflection on one of the many surprisingly inspirational quotes about death.  In a 10 minute (DockTimer-ed) online search for death quotes, I found dozens that could serve as a starting point for asking oneself “What is truly important?”  Some, such as Paul Tsongas’ oft-repeated comment “No one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business,’” directly raise the question.  Others are less direct and may provoke reflection because they don’t mesh with one’s own values.  For example, Errol Flynn is credited with saying, “Any man who has $10,000 left when he dies is a failure.” One might well argue that point, but to do so is to reflect on one’s own sense of what is important.

Here are three more quotes that struck me as possible starting points for reflection – each for different reasons:

No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.  Euripides

Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life.  Bertolt Brecht, The Mother

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

What quotes or other reflection devices help you to jolt yourself into a creative, or simply active, state of mind?

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