Carrel: Yes, Please – Can Improv Improve Responses to Ethical Dilemmas?

The indefatigable Alyson Carrel (Northwestern) reflects on Amy Poehler’s new book Yes, Please, which, like all roads, leads to dispute resolution.


The ABA-Dispute Resolution Section just opened registration for the 17th Annual Spring Conference in Seattle, April 2015. One of the sessions that has been popular over the last couple years is called “What I’ve Been Reading,” where panelists share some books they have recently read and their thoughts and reactions as leaders in the ADR field (word on the street is this session will once again be featured at the conference in 2015). I just finished Amy Poehler’s new book, Yes, Please, and wanted to share some of the reflections I had on recent negotiation workshops I attended.

One of the first rules of improv is the idea that you always say “yes.” If a fellow actor presents says to you, “here is a cup of dirt,” you can’t say, “no, this is a cup of the world’s finest wine.” Instead, you are taught to say “yes, and” as in, “’yes, and’ the dirt is full of gold.” “Yes, and” provides the opportunity to build off and improve on other’s ideas, instead of undermining the other actor and stalling or even stopping the scene. Actors in improv must see each other as partners, not competitors. This sentiment seems to fit nicely with concepts associated with self-determinative and interest-based processes. If an agreement is only possible when both sides agree, then you are, in some ways, at the mercy of the other side to agree with you and are maybe even best served if you can help create value to the other side with whom you are negotiating.

Reading Poehler’s stories about her experience in comedy and improvisation quickly led me to reflect the Fall Negotiation Workshop hosted by Northwestern earlier this fall. Professor Michael Wheeler, from Harvard Business School, discussed his new book The Art of Negotiation: Improvising Agreement in a Chaotic World. He posited that successful negotiators must not only prepare effectively but must have the skills and presence of mind to adapt and respond to new information presented in the course of a negotiation. Wheeler writes that we can’t script a negotiation because we can never know for sure what ideas the other party may have about where to go and how to resolve the situation, circumstances may shift and change in the course of the negotiation, and our own preferences may change. Thus, he says, we have to be able to improvise, both strategically and tactically.

In Poehler’s book, she describes a time when she was working at Saturday Night Live and five seconds before she was pushed on stage to perform live on TV she was presented with a prop she had not previously used or seen before. This new prop, or piece of information, made her feel uncomfortable but she didn’t know what to do and so just went on to perform the skit. Unfortunately, the prop was a doll modeled after a severely disabled girl featured in a recently aired made for TV documentary about twin sisters with cerebral palsy. Following the performance, the producers of the documentary contacted Poehler and called out the insensitive and offensive nature of the skit. Poehler’s first response was to say, it was someone else’s job to tell her this was based on a real story, that the producer should have realized that she is a “NICE PERSON” and never do anything to hurt someone. She perceives herself as more ethical or moral than her actual behavior indicated.

As I read this passage, I thought of the recent talk I heard Professor Jean Sternlight give at the ABA Dispute Resolution’s Advanced Mediation and Advocacy Skills Institute entitled “The Psychology of Ethics in Negotiation and Mediation.” Sternlight shared with us multiple psychological concepts that impede our ethical decision-making. She shared with us we often believe we are more ethical than we actually are – that we blame ethical lapses on “them, not us.” Sternlight also described the phenomenon of Forecasting Errors. Forecasting Errors is the idea that we incorrectly forecast and overestimate how we will react to decisions when asked in hypothetical form.

As I read Poehler’s story and thought about Sternlight’s presentation, I reflected on new research Professor Art Hinshaw presented at Northwestern’s Fall Negotiation Workshop. To better understand ethical decision making in negotiation, Hinshaw sent a series of hypothetical scenarios to 1Ls, 3Ls, and practicing attorneys and asked them to indicate how they would respond to each given situation. The scenarios presented a series of ethical dilemmas. Hinshaw’s data showed that at least 30% of respondents failed to identify the ethical dilemma or if identified, chose to respond unethically. When I put Hinshaw’s research in context of Sterhnlight’s presentation on forecasting errors, I began to wonder if the inability to identify ethical dilemmas is even more rampant than his data showed. Hinshaw’s research is based on responses to a hypothetical situation and if according to forecasting errors people tend to overestimate their ability to respond ethically, his data may mean our students are worse at identifying ethical dilemmas than we realized.

So how does this all come together? Sternlight demonstrated that individuals overestimate their ability to make ethical decisions when asked to respond to hypothetical situations – that they are less likely to make ethical decisions when faced with the same situation in real life. Is this because the individual has less time to process, prepare, or think through the quandary presented? If so, can we use improv techniques to help a negotiator respond more effectively in the moment to new information, specifically information that creates an ethical quandary?

I don’t have an answer to those questions, but the participants in the Fall Negotiation Workshop at Northwestern had an opportunity to explore some of these concepts following Hinshaw and Wheeler’s presentations. We put the participants in small groups and led them through a series of improv games and exercises culminating in a negotiation scenario that presented new information throughout the course of the scenario, creating possible ethical quandaries. I wonder if replicating this scenario in a more controlled study could provide us the answers to the questions posed above.

Yes, Please was a fun read. Not only does she have a knack for presenting information humorously, but it was also fun to think about these academic presentations through the lens of this humorous book. I don’t know if the individuals slated to present in the third iteration of “What I’m Reading” will want to discuss Yes, Please but connecting our field’s scholarship with popular books is refreshing and fun either way.

I hope to see you all at the conference in Seattle!

3 thoughts on “Carrel: Yes, Please – Can Improv Improve Responses to Ethical Dilemmas?”

  1. So how did people respond post-improve to the ethical quandaries?

    Very interesting post, Alyson!

  2. Such a thoughtful and interesting piece! I would love to learn more about all of the topics mentioned.

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