Wednesday, February 19, 2014


by guest blogger, Sean Rose.

Recently, I joined an improv group. For two hours on Saturday morning, we are led through games and activities that develop our physical, mental, and verbal skills of improvising. It's fun, fast-paced, and often quite challenging.

I got to thinking about what improv can teach us about interfaith work. Here are five principles which I believe can shape and inform great interfaith encounters.

1. Be present in the moment. Improv requires that we are fully present because we have to be able to respond to what others are doing and saying, otherwise the scene falls apart. The same is true for great interfaith encounters: bringing our whole self to a conversation, our full, honest, and sometimes complex identity, allows us to really enter into a dialogue with others. Giving someone our focused attention builds rapport and creates a safer space to be vulnerable and to talk about difficult topics like identity, belief, and belonging.

2. Leave your assumptions at the door (or at least be more aware of them).
We all make assumptions about others, perhaps based on their appearance, dress, or heritage, and often we are not aware that our assumptions are influencing the way that we interact with others and our expectations of them. One of the things that I love about improv is having the opportunity to shape your own role. You may be given a character (teacher, child, elderly person) or a trait (loud, shy, itchy), but you decide how to play out that role. Sometimes people feel that they have to assume or inhabit a certain defined role in interfaith encounters, and these presumed characteristics can come to define us, whether we want them to or not. When we leave our assumptions at the door and let others define themselves on their own terms, we will often be surprised by the characters we meet

3. Yes, and! Improv invites us to respond to an invitation or suggestion by saying 'Yes, and...' instead of 'No, but...', which changes the energy and dynamic of a scene. This is a good reminder to us to try to listen to others on their own terms, to hear how they express a belief, practice, or idea for themselves. This is particularly important when we're discussing something divisive, difficult, or controversial. The best interfaith encounters happen when we are open to hearing another speak from their perspective, whilst inviting them to empathise with our ideas in a new and deeper way.

4. Make others look good. In improv, you're supposed to make those around you look good, rather than simply considering your own role in a scene. The same is true for interfaith encounters. When we assume the best of those around us, when we highlight the positive values and attributes that we admire in their community or tradition, we build rapport and foster a safer space for more difficult conversations to happen

5. Mistakes are okay. Improv suggests that mistakes are part of the creative process, and when we see them as something positive to learn from and build upon, we end up with stronger scenes. In an interfaith encounter, if we give someone a second chance when they inadvertently offend us or misunderstand what we're saying, we build relationships of trust and humility. Too often we refrain from asking the question we really want answered in case our words come out the wrong way or we use an incorrect term. Feeling free to speak our mind, to ask our burning questions, and to be ready to admit our mistakes, builds stronger dialogue and helps us have more meaningful conversations.

What do you think? What's the most important thing to remember when we meet and dialogue with those of different faiths, beliefs, and cultures?

Sean Rose is an experienced and award-winning interfaith educator, facilitator, and trainer. A Christian, he studied International Development at University in Norwich (UK), where he was elected to run cross-campus social action campaigns, and founded the Catholic Student Society. Sean was selected for IFYC's prestigious international Faiths Act Fellowship, and his work was recognized with a local community award. He engaged hundreds of young people through service projects and workshops, and presented to 5,000 delegates at the 2009 Parliament of the World's Religions (Australia). As Schools Officer and Training Associate at 3FF (formerly Three Faiths Forum), Sean delivered bespoke interfaith training in the USA, UK, Sweden, and Poland, and facilitated UN award-winning education workshops in high schools, reaching 5,000+ students. Sean facilitates e-learning on the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's pioneering Face to Faith education program, working with students in 19 countries, and coordinates Faith and Values for a new school trust. He has a passion for education, building religious and cultural literacy, and social justice.

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