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Developing Emotional Intelligence: The Very Serious Need For Silliness and Play

       A warm-up often used to generate spontaneity and bypass self-consciousness in an improvisation-based workshop is called "What Are You Doing?" The exercise goes like this: 

The first player steps into the circle and starts miming an activity. As soon as the activity is clear, player 2 asks `What are you doing?”  The first player answers something that has nothing to do with what he`s actually doing. E.g. if player 1 is cutting someone`s hair, when asked what he`s doing he might say "I`m reading the newspaper". The second player starts miming the activity stated by the previous player. A third player comes up to player 2, asks what he is doing, and so on.  Play until everyone has mimed something, and has answered the question.
  In subsequent rounds the idea is to pick up the pace so there is very little lag time between question, answer and new behavior. 
     Simple, right? Silly too. It is harder than it sounds and smarter than you might think. Naming a physical behavior while performing an entirely different one produces what a
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science refers to as "mind-body dissonance," a state of being that is found to enhance our capacity to think creatively and embrace ideas we might reject when settled into routine cognitive patterns. This cognitive expansiveness is the foundation for innovative breakthroughs we cannot discover from conventional approaches.
 In the abstract for that study, the researchers state that "recalling a happy memory while frowning or a sad event while smiling, listening to sad music while smiling or happy music while frowning, and assuming an expansive posture while being in a low-power role or a constricted posture while being in a high-power role all led to higher category inclusiveness compared to when the body and mind were coherent. The ability to display bodily expressions that contradict mental states may be an important foundation for the capacity of humans to embrace atypical ideas." In a game like "What Are You Doing?" we are continually contradicting what the mind expects, disrupting conditioned neural pathways. As with other improvisation-based experiences, we enter into an imaginative reality where anything goes within a set of agreements, which strengthens the capacity to make cognitive gear shifts in real time. There is really nothing more important to success as a partner, parent, boss, co-worker, friend or in any other human connection than cultivating these kinds of emotional competencies - the ability to focus on what other people are saying and doing, shift gears in real time and operate at the top of our intelligence among many others - especially in a social environment that is continually rapidly changing.
    A "yes...and" to the game "What Are You Doing?" in a training or therapy situation might be "What Are You Feeling?" in which players physically express an emotional state and when asked "what are you feeling?" name a different emotion, which is then expressed physically by the player who asked the question, and so on. 
    Following are some quotes about the importance of play and links to their online sources.  

FROM: “The Serious Need For PlayScientific American Mind Special Collector’s Edition, Winter 2014:

“We don’t become socially competent by authority figures telling us how to behave-we gain those skills by interacting with our peers, learning what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

“Although researchers usually emphasize the positive effect of play on the developing brain, they have found that play is important for adults, too. Without play, adults may end up getting burned out from the “hustle-bustle busyness that we all get involved in,” says Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Boulder. Adults who do not play may end up unhappy and exhausted without understanding exactly why.

  “I think play is the major mechanism whereby higher regions of the brain get socialized.” 

   “One function of play is to take you to the edge of your emotional knowledge, so you can learn what you can and cannot do to others. Thus in our studies of play in “play sanctuaries,” we always had young supervisors who would help young people get over such problems. Whenever something bad happened, then we quickly explained to the naughty child that they should be nice if they wanted to continue playing. They usually agreed, and readily learned to be good in order to have fun. We think children can learn many good social skills in this way. Thus play sanctuaries can be used to promote good behaviors.  

What is a play sanctuary?
   I think it is one of the most important things that children need to grow up well, perhaps even reduce the number of kids diagnosed with ADHD. In play sanctuaries caretakers could easily recognize childhood problems, those that may need special attention. Play sanctuaries could provide more children with the free play they often don’t get in the modern world. They are also places where children can be instructed “naturally” in good behaviors, and those who have difficulty playing might be given special attention. We might also need to train new kinds of child clinicians—those who really know how to play, not just talk and talk, not just test-test-test, but play
. A real play-master.” Jaak Panksepp, researcher, neuroscientist

“Improvisation is current, active concentration on a task while incorporating new information for that task.” Joseph Keefe, Founder of Second City, Improv Yourself: BusinessSpontaneity At The Speed of Thought, John Wiley & Sons 2003

“Improvisation is teaching yourself new behavior, a new way to work, a new way to exist. As we incorporate the new stimuli and information from the improv activity, the activity itself mutates and recomposes in unknown directions. We trust our intuitive instincts to take us somewhere useful, interesting and challenging. We walk the tightrope of our own minds and hearts.” Joseph Keefe, Founder of Second City, ImprovYourself: Business Spontaneity at the Speed of Thought, John Wiley & Sons 2003

“Spontaneity is the way to get past defenses and to get to the true self.” Keith Johnstone, author of  Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Routledge Press, 1987 (check out his website

 “Adaptability “…allows an individual to remain comfortable with the anxiety that often accompanies uncertainty and to think ‘out of the box,’ displaying on-the-job creativity and applying new ideas to achieve results. Conversely, people who are uncomfortable with risk and change become naysayers who can undermine innovative ideas or be slow to respond to a shift in the marketplace.” Cherniss & Goleman, The Emotionally Intelligent Workplace,2001    

Jude Treder-Wolff is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer.  Follow her on Twitter


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