(Revised from a piece published September 30, 2009)
A Theatrical Intelligence blog reader posted a question a while ago about everyday conflict in the workplace, wondering if theatrical intelligence can help. Depending on the conflict of course, the answer is yes. As long as one is open to alternative ways of facing the challenge!
Conflicts at work are often reminiscent of family quarrels and hierarchies from our past: we feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, powerless, and usually that familiar 4-letter-word rears its ugly head: FEAR.
One of the great secrets in improvisation is to “follow your fear”, an expression coined 50 years ago at Second City by the late great Del Close. Using this technique (even though it may seem counterintuitive) can yield surprising results.
Professional actors follow their fear in rehearsal and performance by looking for obstacles to overcome. This creates dramatic tension, and requires them to step into unknown territory, which results in emotionally unpredictable, sometimes humorous behavior. When this behavior happens in places other than improvisation, we can laugh about it and learn from it – when it’s over!
The only way to really screw up in improvisation, is to deny “reality”. In this case “imaginary circumstances” = “reality”. This is another little jewel we can steal from improv.
For example, when two actors are on stage and one of them puts her jacket over her head to protect her from… no one knows what, yet… the reality of those imaginary circumstances are a GIFT to the other actor. (Is it raining? Are there pigeons above? Is there an enemy overhead?) One of the actors establishes what the jacket is protecting them from, the other actor accepts it as a gift, and that’s the reality upon which they build their story.
In many workplaces a denial of reality is the norm: it’s “the elephant in the room” or “the dead moose on the table”, meaning no one dares mention the thing everyone knows is going on. Here’s the common wisdom:
Denial of reality breaks down trust and builds up fear
Acceptance of reality opens up worlds of possibility
So, imagine this: the next time the current-conflict-at-hand happens yet again at work… what if you follow your fear? Accept the reality and have the courage to say “That dead moose on the table stinks – what are we going to do about it?” Or, to mimic a possible workplace scenario: “Is that another of your witty insults – again at my expense?”
Opportunities will leap out of nowhere for you and your colleagues. Why? Because you’ve broken through the denial, acknowledged what is real, and cracked the conflict wide open. Can’t you just hear it? Try it! FOLLOW YOUR FEAR.
And please let us all know where your courage takes you – I suspect is worthy of acknowledegment.