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Improve Your Thanksgiving With Improv

Armed with "yes, and", the notion of family as ensemble, and the process of co-creation, we can walk away from the table feeling as happy as when we arrived. Hopefully, people will ask for seconds of this "dish" next year.
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As Thanksgiving approaches, we anticipate the warm feeling of family gathered for a reunion of stories, good food, and football. Inevitably, though, there comes a moment when that warmth comes from friction, as someone hogs the conversation or dismisses us in a way that makes our eyes roll, our heads shake, and our legs carry us to the nearest exit for safer space. This year, instead of bringing a dish of food, I'm bringing a "dish" of improv. Try these three tactics, extrapolated from Yes, And by Second City comedy experts Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, as an antidote to ease the tension and increase the likelihood of a happy Thanksgiving.

  1. Yes, and: The key to improv is that the players say, "yes, and...", not "no" or "yes, but." "Yes, and" gives every idea an opportunity to grow. It keeps the conversation open and moving forward, forcing people to be in the moment. Saying "yes, and" at the dinner table affirms what another is saying, opens up possibilities, and takes topics on interesting twists and turns. It redirects and invites people into the conversation.

Try It: When your older sister asks, condescendingly, when your ski patrolman husband is going to get a "real job," fight the urge to ask her what she would know about a real job considering that she has been "going to go to law school" for the better part of the last decade. Instead, try "yes, and last week Steve's boss let us ski before the mountain opened up to the public and the views were breathtaking. What's the most beautiful view you've seen this year?"

  • Act as Ensemble: Improv requires building an ensemble, an entity that works best when members are performing as one. Unlike traditional teams that have starters and bench players, ensembles are composed of equals who collaborate. In ensemble, you surrender the need to be right and instead pay attention to how shared dynamics are affecting the group. Seeing family as ensemble opens the group to think of every member as an equal contributor and parses out the respect to all. There is no kids' table when it comes to conversation in an ensemble. All voices are heard.
  • Try It: When Uncle Dave interrupts little Katie's story about her class trip, speak up! "Actually, I'd love to hear more about your favorite animal at the zoo, Katie."

  • Co-Create: The third tenet of improv is "co-creation" - building something together. Open conversations give everyone a chance to contribute. As Leonard and Yorton note, dialog pushes stories further than monologue. They encourage ensemble members to "Bring a brick, not a cathedral." If you offer fully formed ideas in conversation around the table, others may feel excluded from participating. Bringing "bricks" allows for creativity to flourish and richer stories to emerge. Everyone feels welcomed and engaged.
  • Try It
    : Instead of a long detailed story, bring a question and ask everyone around that table to respond to it. Try questions like "What song brings up a happy moment for you?" Or "What's something you've done that you're proud of?" Or "If you could live somewhere else for a year, where would it be?" I come to the table armed with these questions to make sure that we do not just share the same old stories, but rather welcome everyone to add something fresh and informative. And, as a bonus, having these questions up your sleeve provides a perfect deflection when conversation takes a turn toward the tense.

    Armed with "yes, and", the notion of family as ensemble, and the process of co-creation, we can walk away from the table feeling as happy as when we arrived. Hopefully, people will ask for seconds of this "dish" next year.