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The First Rule of Improv

According to Malcolm Gladwell, the first rule of improvisational comedy is: always accept your partner’s suggestions. In order for an improvised scene to be successful, the improvisers involved must work together responsively to define the parameters and action of the scene, in a process of co-creation.

With each spoken word or action in the scene, an improviser makes an offer, meaning that he or she defines some element of the reality of the scene. It is the responsibility of the other players to accept the offer so that the scene moves forward. If, for example, a player points at an invisible asteroid in the distance hurtling toward earth, the others must react accordingly.

Infinite possibilities for the scene exist when the other players accept the premise. A “yes” opens up doors. On the other hand, the scene comes to a dead stop as soon as someone gazes toward the horizon and says “I don’t see anything.”

It’s taken me a long time to realize this, but I don’t think anything prepares a person more for litigation, business meetings, negotiations, or everyday life than would a study of improvisational comedy. Picture the following scenarios:

  • A business owner on the other side of the table announces: “I just don’t think the performance of your company justifies the price you’re asking.”
  • A judge says: “I do not believe that I’m compelled to follow the caselaw you cited in your argument.”
  • A prospective customer says: “I could get a lower price from one of your competitors.”

In each case, the speaker has gone off script by expressing a sentiment the other person did not want to hear. This is the decision point. The response could either be based on a contradiction – “I respectfully disagree because…” – or the offer can be accepted as in “well, let’s explore that…”

  • The would-be purchaser is not going to change his mind about the value of the company at Closing. Even if the seller disagreed, the negotiations can move forward if the buyer’s truth is accepted for the moment. Doors open up. The parties could agree to the buyer’s figure at closing with future payments if, after closing, the company outperforms the buyer’s expectations.
  • The judge won’t be argued or cajoled to change her reading of the law. But she could be shown how you still win even if her reading of this particular caselaw is correct.
  • The customer will remain convinced that you’re not the cheapest guy in town. But he may be persuaded that your products or services bring greater value.

Too often, I see discussions devolve into a contest of wills fueled by ego and an unwillingness to be out-negotiated or, God-forbid, be proven wrong. But if one follows the first rule of improv, those situations are immediately defused as each side shows a willingness to accept the other’s truth.

As Stephen Colbert once said in his commencement address to Knox College: