Getting to Yes, And

Geoffrey Cohen: Belonging


Geoffrey Cohen

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Kelly has a fascinating conversation with Stanford professor Geoffrey Cohen about his new book, “Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides.

You and I are both nerdy about the late sociologist Erving Goffman, who offered that human beings have many selves, not just one true authentic self.

“It's such a tricky issue. It is, as Goffman says, that the inner self is the one reality that we cannot observe. We take it so seriously because we feel really put off when someone seems fake to us. So there is a kind of sense that there is an authentic self in someone else that we feel in a situation, and we feel ourselves behaving authentically or not. Yet, as you're hinting at, in any moment, there are a zillion ways in which we could be ourselves. How do we go from the buzzing, blooming confusion that is our mind to to act right here right now to say something right here right now. What's that choice? And I think it depends on not just who "we are", but the situations before us, and a situation is almost like a canvas in which we write ourselves anew every moment.”

Second City did a study with Ayelet Fischbach at U of C which had two groups do the same improv exercise, but one group was given a simple prompt that the exercise would be uncomfortable, and they should stick with it. You can guess which group did better.

“One of the kinds of big predictors of whether or not we feel like we belong is whether we think our suffering is unique to us. If we feel like, yeah, we're the only one or if through a prompt, like the intervention you just mentioned, we kind of dispel that ambiguity and make you understand that, yeah, actually, this is a pretty universal experience. That feeling like you're the only one is, ironically, pretty universal, especially in these challenging, stressful situations. So that’s beautiful.”

Over and over, I kept finding that the problem of belonging is something that our field of improvisation addresses at its core.

“I think the challenge of integration, the problem of creating a truly diverse society where all feel like they belong, even people from historically ostracized groups or negatively stereotyped groups, is kind of reminiscent of the challenge in improvisation. How do we create inclusive moments? That seems to be the challenge of improvisation, right? So that everyone contributes and we're building something together. But you can kind of scale it up and say, Well, that's the problem of society, of democracy. How do we create a society or a classroom even where people have that sense of belonging and being part of a larger mission - mattering and being accepted. And I think improvisation is great and the ‘yes, and’ technique is a great example of a practice for achieving it.”

Photo credit: Nancy Rothstein

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