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.