Tina Fey’s book Bossypants has a chapter on her time with the Second City improvisational theatre troupe in Chicago. In it, she includes a section outlining four rules of improvisation. (This section is actually entitled “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat,” although in a footnote she explains that these rules will not reduce belly fat.) These rules can nevertheless be useful in lots of situations, including mediation. I am not the first to note the similarities between mediation and improvisational theatre. Others, such as LA mediator Jeffrey Krivis, have written extensively about the applicability of improvisational skills in mediation and negotiation.

Here are Tina Fey’s four rules:

The first rule is always say “yes.” Never say “no.” In Tina Fey’s example, if the actor you are working with points his finger at you and says, “Freeze, I have a gun!’ you do not respond by saying “That’s not a gun, it’s your finger.” You don’t do that because the scene would then turn into an argument and have nowhere entertaining to go. In mediation, when the other party makes a proposal, it’s generally not a good idea to jump up and yell “That’s an insult!” or “That’s absolutely out of the question.” Instead, it’s better to respond with something more constructive like “that’s an option,” or “help me understand why you think it is fair that we turn over our first born child to your client.” The rule of always saying yes doesn’t mean that parties have to agree with everything the other side says. What it really means, as Fey explains, is to show respect for the other side’s ideas and stay open-minded.

The second rule is to say “yes, and…”  To keep an improvisational scene going, each player should contribute new ideas rather than just react to the other player’s ideas. Creativity builds on creativity to create the joy and excitement of improvisational theatre, and lead scenes into new and unexpected directions. In mediation, that kind of reaction also keeps the dialogue going. Notice it is “yes, and…” and not “yes, but….”  The tendency in discussions of conflict is to introduce obstacles and problems with the other side’s ideas, rather than new suggestions. A better way to react to the other side’s suggestions is to say, “that’s an idea, and here’s another idea that might work even better.”

The third rule is to make statements rather than ask questions. This helps keep the scene going by continuing to introduce new elements rather than forcing the first actor to keep justifying or explaining his own statements, which can be boring. In mediation, questions can be helpful to clarify each side’s statements and suggestions, but it’s also good to remember not to keep someone who is making suggestions completely on the defensive. So maybe we should interpret this rule to say: Don’t just ask questions. Both parties also need to introduce their ideas into the mix.

The final and perhaps the most important rule of improvisation is that there are no mistakes, only opportunities. When an actor completely misinterprets what the other actor is trying to do or say, the first actor shouldn’t correct the misinterpretation, but should go with the flow, and try to adopt the interpretation the other actor stated. In Fey’s example, the first actor thinks he is clearly being a cop riding a bicycle, but the other actor thinks he is a hamster turning a wheel. In that case, the first actor must become the hamster.

This last rule is a hard rule to follow in mediation as well as theatre, because parties in conflict have a fierce desire to have their point of view understood. If they are misunderstood, they usually want to scream “no, no, no, that’s not what I was trying to say at all.” If we try to apply the techniques of theatre people, however, we might try instead to build on the other side’s interpretation of our actions and statements. Rather than deny or try to correct the other side’s misunderstandings, what we might need to do is try to understand what caused that perception. Then we gain some insight into how our actions or statements are viewed by others. That can help parties gain the understanding and perspective needed to resolve the conflict.


by Joe Markowitz

Joe Markowitz has practiced commercial litigation for more than 30 years, both in New York City and Los Angeles, and has served as a mediator for more than fifteen years. He is a member of the Mediation Panels in both the District Court and Bankruptcy Court in the Central District of California. He is currently the president-elect of the Southern California Mediation Association. Website: www.mediate-la.com/