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Five Essential Thinking/Feeling Skills We Can Learn Through Improvisation

The ever-changing dynamics of the networked world can be viewed as a creative challenge or a series of demanding threats, depending on our point of view. There are thinking and relationship skills that enhance our capacity to make the most of the opportunities that lie within the tensions of change and deal effectively with the pace. Improvisation is an experiential method for tapping into our own creative energy while learning new material and connecting with other people. Here are 5 thinking/emotional skills fostered by experiences with improvisation:

Think relationally. Conventional education prepares us to fit into the fairly rigid structures that used to mirror the world of work, with lines of authority clearly defined along what we thought of as the ladder of success. With all the emphasis on right answers and learning the right way to do a thing, our intuitive capacity to recognize subtle connections between existing things or ideas and tolerate the tension of seeing things that others miss are gradually eroded. Improv games provide structures that engage the pattern-seeking functions of the right brain and a frame within which to express them. The spirit of community fostered by improvisation is a safety net that allows the open-ended exploration of themes that emerge through interaction, much like surfing the web reveals links to people, information and opportunities we might never otherwise discover.

Manage uncertainty. Order, predictability and control are fine in factories where the outcome must be repeatable and consistent, but in the networked world that form-and-function style of thinking is obsolete. Theater games increase our tolerance for not-knowing, for finding the gifts concealed within the ridiculous. They strengthen the psychological capacity to choose discomfort, go blank and be okay with it, by entering the game: describe your dilemma in the style of a Mission Impossible assignment; deliver a eulogy for a role being left behind; tell the tale backward. The idea is to hoodwink the internal perfectionist that hangs out somewhere in the pre-frontal cortex ready to badger, discourage, threaten, cajole, torment and, if necessary, destroy the intuitive impulse. Improv games can circumvent the defenses that inhibit not only inventiveness but also self-knowledge, and generate enough positive energy within a group to help us break through the anxiety of feeling silly or embarrassed or awkward, of going blank - all part of the creative process.

Making your partner look good. Scenes created through improvised theater games always involve an exchange with a partner who is out on a limb equally as much as we are. The experience ccepting and developing a partner's choices builds trust and generates a wider range of risk-taking possibilities. In life this one choice has multiple benefits: it enlarges our sense of self, grows the positive energy in a relationship, and maximizes the potential of both.


Agreements. To produce something meaningful out of an imaginary idea, game-players must agree on the rules e.g. "we will have a conversation in which each sentence starts with the next consecutive letter of the alphabet," or "we will talk about something that happened today in the style of a soap opera." The parameters of the game drive novelty and invention in the same way that outfielders in a baseball game drive the tension when a hitter is running the bases. Working within agreed-upon boundaries shapes the action so that the choices we make can be processed and discussed as to their degree of success. The networked economy is all about relationships, and agreements are key to collaboration.

Creative tension. The potential for failure, not knowing what will happen next, the "in the moment" demand for a response that are elements of live improvisation bring out fear, perfectionsm, self-consciousnes and all sorts of control issues. But the good will and generosity of spirit inherent in the philosophy of improvisation invite risk-taking and support spontaneity that is then available for other applications, such as taking the emotional and psychological risks that are integral to innovation and a free-lancer's daily challenge.

The way of the improviser is about giving an effort "the works," being fully committed without knowing what will happen next. It is the mind set of the beginner - an inner space of openness and receptivity many of us spend most of our lives trying to avoid. The intuitive mind and psychological strength to commit without a guaranteed outcome are essential thinking skills for navigating the networked world.


Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She will facilitate "Social-Emotional Learning Techniques Using Applied Improvisation" on Saturday Sept. 13, 1-5 pm at Lifestage, Inc. 

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