Hi all. Nate here. Recently, I stumbled across an article in The Atlantic: "The Secret to Love is just Kindness." As a human being who is a fan of both love and kindness, and as someone who is slowly trying to express more of both in everyday life, I was intrigued.
It's a great article that follows a pair of researchers who looked at different married couples and, after observation, sorted them into two categories: the "masters" and the "disasters." The terms are basically self-explanatory, but in general, the "masters" still had vibrant, connected marriages after a six-year period, while the marriages of the "disasters" had basically fallen apart (if not in actuality - with divorce - at least in practice).
So, why am I writing about this on a blog for an improv company? Well, support is obviously a huge part of both improv and relationships. But what really struck me was this portion of the article:
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
This is the section that fascinated me. You see, in my improv training at Theatre 99, my teacher Greg Tavares (buy his book everyone) called lines in an improv scene "offers." As an improviser, every line you say, every action you take, everything you do in an improv scene is an offer to your scene partner. Truly great improv happens when offers are accepted and explored in an improv scene without judgment; when scene partners are truly interested in the others' offers and "yes, and" them to build something together.
As I'm sure many of you have connected - the words "offer" and "bid" aren't really all that far apart. From the perspective of an improviser, what's happening in these relationships is that one side makes an "offer" - "Oh, honey look at that beautiful bird outside!" - and the other side must respond. When the researchers talk about "turning toward," in improv parlance we would call that "Yes, and." "Yes that is beautiful, and I think you should go outside and try to get a picture!" "Yes, that is beautiful, and thank you for sharing that with me!"
The "masters," maybe without even knowing it, are using improvisational concepts to bring kindness and support to their relationships. Contrast this with the "disasters" who "turn away," which is essentially committing the cardinal sin of improvisation - denial.
Humans are sensitive creatures - and social creatures. There is a deep desire inside of all of us to be accepted, to be heard, to be seen, and to be considered important - especially by those around us and even more especially by our romantic partner(s). Many times relationships don't break down because of one singular event, but because of a slow building of small interactions that leave one side or the other feeling unsupported and unheard.
People always say, "Marriages take work." And it's absolutely true. Some of the hardest work you can undertake is to be kind and to be interested, especially during the course of a life with kids, full-time jobs, outside stresses, et cetera. It's easy to fall into a pattern of self-focus. I would challenge all of us in life - as I challenge students in improv classes - to take a "yes-and" attitude to our conversations, especially with our partners, and to treat their "offers" - or "bids" - for what they are: cries for connection and kindness in a world that doesn't always offer enough of either. (And by the way - this is an approach you can take with any relationship, not just romantic ones! Friends, siblings, parents, kids...)
Now that I've said that, let me shamelessly plug our improv classes, which will be sure to improve your marriage!*
This is Sam. Here's a blog. Enjoy:
Working with people is hard. There’s no way around it. People can hurt people. We’re great at it.
Take my two toddlers…
Forgive me, that wasn’t a funny joke. You know what’s not a joke? Working with people. Back to my two toddlers.
Solomon is almost five. Samson is almost three.
Samson is learning how to urinate in a toilet. This is a challenging lesson, to be sure. There’s often pools of urine in our bathroom. It’s a messy situation. Yellow, too. Still, the boy is figuring things out. God bless him.
“Tell me when you need to use the big boy potty,” my wife Katie said to Samson the other morning, after putting big boy underwear on him. “Remember, you’re not wearing a diaper.”
Solomon chimed in. “Yes, tell me when you need to use the big boy potty, Samson. I’ll help you.”
Solomon was trying to help his brother. He was also, whether he meant to or not, expressing his power over Samson. He is the older brother. He is the original big boy.
Solomon continued to tell Samson that Samson needed to let us know if he had to use the big boy potty. This went on for a couple of minutes.
“You’re not a big boy,” Solomon reminded his brother when Samson suggested he didn’t need help.
“I AM a big boy.” Samson said emphatically.
The two fought. Solomon ended up in his room crying. Samson went to the other side of the house in search of peace quiet.
What started as two people working together to solve a problem – urinating in a toilet – ended with conflict and the gnashing of teeth. Forgive the potty talk, but I don’t think the story of my sons is that far removed from my general experience working with people. We often start with good, helpful intentions and end up raging against each other. Power is often the root of this phenomenon, I think. Like Solomon, we want to be seen, heard, and valued. Like Samson, we don’t want others to impose their power over us. We want autonomy. Conflict ensues. I’ve often been hurt when working with other people. That much is sure.
Improv has taught me so much about working with other people. Precepts of improv serve me when I encounter others. Listen carefully. Affirm and accept each offering. Be open to the unexpected. Participate in a way that doesn’t serve my own interests but, rather, the needs of the group in the moment. If the group succeeds, I succeed. If they fail, I fail. Share power and don’t impose your own vision at the expense of others. Improv has not only taught me how to name these things, it’s required me to practice being in relation with people in the way I describe above. As an improv teacher, I’ve been challenged to create contexts where people follow the list of precepts here.
Please take note. I’m not a master of working with people. I can be selfish, thoughtless, and cruel. Like Solomon, I often remind people that I’m a big boy and they’re not in the spirit of helping them. Things never end up working out for me when I act this way, but I’m only human, and I act this way far too often. Still, I’ve learned that I’m better served when I bring an improvisational ethos to the work of being in relation with others. My classrooms are more productive when I follow the guidelines mentioned above. They’re healthier, happier, and less dangerous. Collaborative projects always go better for me when I avoid imposing my will at the expense of serving the work of the group. Sometimes you need to get out of the way and improv had allowed me to practice doing so.
And of course improv isn’t some magic cure-all. I’m weary of being mistaken for a snake oil salesman here. But improv, if facilitated well, creates a unique space for people to imagine new ways to be in relation to each other. At least, that’s what the artform has provided for me over the years. And that’s the kind of space I’ve tried to provide for others in my work as a teacher or director.
Being a parent is hard. I don’t know how to help Solomon and Samson avoid the fight they got into over being big boys. I’m certain there will be more fights to come. Improvisational parenting? There’s certainly a self-help book in that idea. I’m too busy cleaning urine off our bathroom floor to write it at the moment.