The Art of Conversation

The Art of Conversation

12 Jan 2022 / Charles Merritt

Ironically, I was unsure as to how to start this blog… So, let’s start off with a fun little fact about me.

I love to take part in improvised comedy. One of the few joys of lockdown was being able to be part of a new improv group. Once a month, over Zoom, we meet up and hone our improvisational skills with the help of an incredible improviser based in Chicago. For those who don’t know (and let’s face it, why would you?), Chicago is considered by many to be the home of improvisation. Improv companies such as Second City are based there and have produced such alumni as Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Dan Ackroyd, and Tina Fey to name a few. And would you believe it, our teacher is from the same company! The wonderful Craig Uhlir has been guiding us through how to be better improvisers and it’s been such a joy to spend a couple of hours laughing and making stuff up together.

It’s taught me skills that I’ve found super useful when I go into schools to mentor young people and I think we could all learn from the art of improvisation when it comes to our conversations.

Improvisation is all about the art of conversation. Many people think that improvisational comedy is about how many puns or absurd comments you can squeeze into a scene but it’s so much more than that. It requires skills of humility, quick thinking and listening.

One of the biggest mistakes an improviser can make is coming into a scene with a preconceived notion of how the scene is going to go. The problem with this is that it means there is a lack of improvisation – which is a crucial element in the world of improvisation. If the player is unable to drop their precious idea, the scene becomes stale and hard work for both players, as the other improviser is highly unlikely to be able to read the others mind.

The same is true with conversation. The best conversations happen when we have no agenda other than to have a conversation. When we come in wanting to steer the conversation in a certain way, we miss out on the opportunities to talk about things we could never imagine talking about. It’s why there’s a golden phrase in improv called ‘Yes and…’. In other words, you take what your partner has just said, you confirm it and then you build upon it. Nothing kills conversation more than a rejection of an idea. If we are not open to talk about whatever with a young person then we are backing the conversation into a corner and missing out on important lines of thought that could open up something bigger than we had anticipated.

This doesn’t mean that we come in with nothing to say. Improvisers are encouraged to establish the who, the what and the where when they start a scene together. It’s hard for the audience to know who the characters are, where they are and what it is they’re trying to achieve if it’s not made clear at the beginning. Equally, it’s helpful for the improvisers themselves to know, as it helps drives the scene. Once everything is established, the characters can build upon these foundational elements and take the scene to the next level.

In mentoring it’s important to establish who you are and what the purpose of mentoring is. It’s also useful coming in with some ice breaker questions – they may seem silly, but they often uncover really insightful conversations. I once had an ice breaker question that opened up a whole conversation around faith without it even intending to. It’s in those times that I’m grateful that I have something in my back pocket if conversation is hard to take off. I also keep notes so that I can ask about things we’ve talked about the week before. This helps restart old conversations and gives them an opportunity to give updates or expand upon the original idea. It also helps them to feel listened to which leads us nicely into…

Listening is one of the most important skills of improvisation and conversation. If you do all the talking then you’re leaving little room for your partner to contribute. It may be that they have something awesome to say but by talking non-stop you stall the scene from developing any further. The same is true for conversations. If you’re constantly talking and not allowing room for the other person to join in then the conversation takes too long to get to where it needs to get to, or it may never get to that point at all!

It’s crucial to be actively listening to the other person when they are speaking too. My best trick is to say what the other person is saying in your head at the same time as they are speaking. It means you really have to concentrate on what they are saying rather than allowing your brain to wander off into various avenues.

When people are listened to they feel a connection, rather than just being talked at in an unequal status of importance. Listening also provides further insight into who it is you are talking to.

To recap:

  1. Let go of preconceived ideas of how the conversation is going to go.
  2. ‘Yes and…’ ideas, even if they seem random – you never know where it will take you!
  3. Establish who you are and what mentoring is – this really only applies to the first session.
  4. Have things ready to talk about – but don’t be afraid to drop them if not needed!
  5. Actively listen to the other person – allow them space to contribute to the conversation.