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How Improvisation Promotes Emotional Competence


     Every human interaction involves some degree of emotional risk. Buyer and seller, employee and employer, teacher and student, therapist and client and every other combination of roles are most likely to succeed when the risk  - e.g., of rejection, being misunderstood, failing to communicate – is managed with a combination of competence and good will. Competence in relationships is a skill set we can spend our entire lives improving. Through practice we can unlearn some of the defensive patterning we developed out of hurt and fear or simply absorbed from the people who around us who had no better tools for navigating emotional uncertainty as well as discover what works better and moves us toward what we really want with other people.

     Improvisation master and Stanford University professor Patricia Ryan Madson describes improv as a training ground for acting with generosity, awareness of the needs of others, and willingness to jump in and share the struggle with others on the stage of life. Her
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
book Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up outlines 12 maxims that form the philosophy behind improvisation and are genuinely useful guidelines for creating our lives, culminating in the foundational principle of all successful families, partnerships, groups and teams: “take care of each other.”
     “Learning how to work together moment by moment without a known formula is the essence of improvisation,” she writes. “We recognize this ability when we watch jazz musicians, giving and taking stage, harmonizing, creating a piece of music before us and finding an ending just when it is needed. This wordless synchronicity can be found in ordinary life as well.” Self-and-other-awareness, interpersonal connection, self-responsibility and emotional regulation – the capacity to recognize our emotional triggers without reacting from the stress response or, conversely, to reign in emotions that are inappropriate to the boundaries of a situation – are skills associated with emotional intelligence that can be learned through the structure and process of improvisation.
TIME magazine reports about new research on what happens in the brain when jazz musicians improvise, showing that the give and take is "grounded in the same neural processes at play in every one of us when we engage in spontaneous self-expression, like a conversation with a friend."

     The greater our fluency in the language of feelings, the more successful we will be in negotiating the barriers between ourselves and others. And we never know when a barrier will present itself, making improvisation - with its emphasis on here-and-now creative responsiveness - an ideal training ground for essential relationship skills. Studies show that our perception of the choices available to us in a given situation – and therefore our power to act – is directly related to our sense of competence, which grows through practice. In research recently published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, participants “were asked about their preferences for choice in a variety of hypothetical situations. The researchers found that participants were more likely to prefer choices in situations in which they had previously received positive performance feedback or felt competent because of prior experience. The results provided evidence of a relationship between competence and choice.”
    Improv is the result of agreements made between players that form the structure of the game or scene, in the same way that romantic and business partners operate within a set of agreements. The agreements between teacher and student, therapist and client, or trainer and trainee take into account the difference in status - a teacher can assign a value to students' work and students accept the teacher's authority and knowledge, a client accepts the therapist's expertise and agrees to a specific fee, meeting time and what is acceptable contact outside the sessions -  and if everyone involved honors those agreements a great deal of creative energy can be generated through the interaction. What works is what moves the story forward, both in an improv situation and in a real-life relationship. We gain competence through jumping in with the skills we have, seeing what develops,and  experimenting with new, previously untried approaches.
     Because of the risk inherent in human interaction, there is some degree of fear. One of the other relationship-building dimensions of improv is "following the fear." Follow the fear of rejection, failure, humiliation, or whatever other emotional nightmares that are always possible in an improv situation. Take it right to the edge of the abyss. In improv, we may follow the fear right into the abyss but we will not go there alone. And in going there we gain a kind of psychological "muscle" to engage creativity when we need it most, which is when we are at the end of what we know. When old habits fail to meet the demands of an urgent, evolving need. When all else fails.
    Emotional competence grows when we push past our preconceptions about what is possible for us and endure that discomfort in service of a higher goal. The higher goal can be that the conversation we are having right now goes in a positive direction, no matter how much we may disagree with the other person. It may be that we support another person just because the relationship is that important. The higher goal can be the communication of an idea. In improv we may sacrifice getting a big laugh to help another player out of a "brain freeze." What we get out of this is a kind of indescribable magic that can transform even an ordinary encounter with another person into something transcendant.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She will facilitate Using Improv to Explore The Awfulness, No Make That Awesomeness, of Ambivalence on Saturday Feb. 15, 2014, 1-5 pm. at Lifestage, Inc in Smithtown NY. Details on this link

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