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Improvisation Games & Exercises For Developing Emotional Intelligence


    Since September Lifestage has been offering a monthly training workshop exploring the use of improvisation to develop Emotional Intelligence. These workshops have been geared toward the work done by clinicians, educators and trainers who guide the process of personal change or professional development, but as it turns out we have enjoyed some interesting diversity among the participants -  managers, business owners with both employees and customers, community activists, and performers. 
    Below is a collection of the exercises we have used in the workshops, accompanied by some studies that supports their use. 
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP


     
Why Improvisation?
Improvisation is a powerful way to become aware of mental habits and patterns. Reflecting on our inner experiences after engaging in an improvisation exercise provides an opportunity to decide whether our mental habits are effective and useful or self-limiting and obsolete. The tensions of the creative process and this kind of interpersonal interaction are a fast-track to greater self-awareness, which is associated with high emotional intelligence. By "following the fear" in a conscious, purposeful way we become more aware of our mental structures and defenses and at the same time experience what life might be like if we were able to be less encumbered by them, and more spontaneous. 
Our automatic, subconscious structures and defenses are challenged almost immediately by the process of improvisation. Simply not knowing what is going to happen next in a scene, for example, or joining in a game that seems silly and pointless can and does trigger tension, and for that reason it can be uncomfortable. But properly structured improvisation exercises are deceptively profound. They can reveal to us our reactions and default positions when faced with change of any kind, information that is mostly hidden from our day-to-day awareness but plays an enormous role in our day-to-day interactions and decisions. The process of developing emotional intelligence is exactly the same – becoming aware of the defenses and self-protections we employ to feel a sense of psychological safety  and making conscious choices about how to manage them.

     An article on Harvard Business Review’s website titled “For A More Flexible Workforce Hire Self-Aware People” links higher self-awareness to the capacity to be flexible and shift in response to changing situations. “Understanding that one has certain tendencies leads to recognition that those tendencies serve one better in some situations than others. That recognition in turn leads to a willingness to assess a situation and adjust one’s approach to it, if called for…Self-awareness is a millennia-old area of study – the aphorism “know thyself” dates back to at least to Socrates. Why is it important to organizational performance? According to Gary Yukl, a researcher on leadership, “Self-awareness makes it easier to understand one’s own needs and likely reactions if certain events occurred, thereby facilitating evaluation of alternative solutions.” He defines the concept as including “understanding of one’s own needs, emotions, abilities, and behavior,” indicating that a person able to identify his or her own strengths and weaknesses will be more effective.”   


                             IMPROV GAMES and EXERCISES  
               
                                             
I DID IT! EXERCISES: WORDS AND MUSIC


  • Reflect on a personal experience with "following the fear" that turned out well which demonstrates one of the tenets of both improvisation and emotional intelligence;
  • Build up group cohesiveness through personal sharing;
  • Experience the group support and the "music" of an interaction, which is central to understanding emotional intelligence; 


– Review the “hook” of musical themes from movies that most people recognize, including movies that feature heroes who do incredible things, e.g.: Mission Impossible, Theme from Superman, Theme from Rocky, Theme from Magnificent Seven; relationship or interpersonal issues: Theme From The Odd Couple; Sing each theme together to rehearse.
Instruct participants to take 5 minutes to review something that have accomplished in their life that they did not think they could do. Identify: What was the goal? What were the obstacles? How does it feel to have accomplished this?
Each participant can choose what theme music they would like the group to sing as they take center stage. Sing with energy to support the person as they take the stage. Everyone shares from 3-4 minutes.

You!                                                                                                                        Objectives: 
  • Disrupt automatic mental patterning; 
  • Focus on the here and now;                                                                        
The basic pattern: Everyone stands in a circle.  The facilitator  starts the game by  pointing to someone in the circle while saying “you”. This person then points to someone else while saying “you”. Play continues until everyone gets to lower their hand and say “you” to someone – no repeats allowed – the last person points to the facilitator and passes the “you” back to him/her. Ask the participants if they remember who they received the “you” from and who they passed it to because they are going to stick with these people. Play two more rounds so everyone becomes comfortable and encourage the group to go faster.
The second pattern: Tell the participants that they are now going to practice a different pattern. Point to someone (different than the first round) and say something in a category, e.g. your favorite breakfast food/dish. Repeat procedure until everyone’s pointed to someone and said a favourite breakfast item (no repetition of people being pointed at or food). Start the “you” pattern and about 30 seconds in, begin the breakfast pattern so you have two patterns going at the same time. Ss will generally drop one. Encourage them to concentrate and keep the momentum with both.
The third pattern: Now introduce a third pattern with a different category, e.g., animal, superhero, flower, country. Start the “you” pattern, then the 2nd one and then the third.


SILENT CIRLE OF SUPPORT
Objectives: 
  • Promote group cohesion;
  • Demonstrate the core improv principle "take care of each other";
  • Provide an experience of disorientation that is safe and supported, which promotes creativity and openness to the development of new thinking and skills;

Each participant takes a turn walking with eyes closed in a circle made up of the rest of the group.  It begins with turning around a few times with eyes closed, in the center of the circle, then walking straight ahead. The group is responsible for making sure the person walking is supported,  safe,  and taken care of. There is always the risk that someone in the circle will mess up, or that the people in the circle will not work together in a coherent way (although I have yet to see that happen). Especially with kids, there is always the possibility that it could happen and we have to be prepared to process anything that goes wrong if it does.

EYE CONTACT/NO EYE CONTACT
Objectives:

  • Experience the impact of eye contact in silent interaction with others;
  • Experience the impact of eye contact on emotional states and emotional connection;
The group or leader suggests that the group imagine that the group space is some open public space., e.g. an art gallery or a train station. Participants walk about the space without making eye contact with anyone else. 1-2 minutes.  Post-its are provided for participants to write down any feelings of which they are aware during this exercise and post them on a specified spot on the wall.
The group is then instructed to walk about the space in the same way, only this time to seek out eye contact with others but immediately look away when eye contact is made.  1-2 minutes. Feelings are again recorded on post-its placed in another spot.
The group is then instructed to walk about the space, seek out eye contact, and pair up with the first person to reciprocate. Walk side by side with that person and both partners make no eye contact with anyone else.   Feelings recorded.
Group returns to a large circle. Eyes cast down looking at shoes. On the count of 3 everyone looks up and seeks eye contact with someone. If eye contact is achieved partners high five.
PROCESSING: 
What feelings are evoked by each stage of the exercise?
What feels good, what feels bad or in between and why?
 In what ways does this apply to life in the real world, e.g. what is our emotional
  reaction to people who look away rather than make eye contact? 
What might it mean for client/student contact to make solid eye contact? 
How does eye contact influence interaction?

EVIDENCE: 
Eye Contact and Social Interaction, PsyArticles.com
In this study published in Psychological Science, which examined the importance of small interpersonal signals, such as brief eye contact even with strangers, Eric D. Wesselmann of Purdue University and co-authors Florencia D. Cardoso of the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata in Argentina, Samantha Slater of Ohio University, and Kipling D. Williams of Purdue "describe a study conducted to investigate just how small a cue can help someone feel connected. READ MORE 

"Eye contact builds bedside trust: Doctors who make eye contact seem more empathetic to patients"  A study published in the Journal of Participatory Medicine analyzed videotaped doctors' visits and reinforces the notion that nonverbal social communication is an important part of doctor/patient relationships that should be thoughtfully managed.

GAME: WHAT AM I DOING?                                                                                                           
OBJECTIVES:                                                                                                       
  • Increase spontaneity; 
  • Produce mind/body dissonance* which enhances creativity;

The first player of the line 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.

* “Mind–Body Dissonance: Conflict Between the Senses Expands the Mind’s Horizons,” S
Social Psychological and Personality Science December 10, 2010                                                          


I AM A TREE                                                                      OBJECTIVES: 

  • To practice accepting offers of ideas in collaboration with others*
  • To build on the offers made by others;
  • To tell a story beat by beat, which increases cohesion on the team;
                         

One person starts the scene on stage saying “I am a tree.” Another person joins them, choosing something or someone to interact with the tree. They might say “I am the blue jay calling from the tree branch” and clasp the tree person’s arm. Or maybe they say “I am the water running beneath the roots of the tree” and lie down on the floor to wriggle beneath the tree person’s feet. A third person then joins the first two, choosing their own related identity and action: “I am the lovers’ carving in the bark on the tree” while forming a heart on the tree person’s torso.
At that point, the person who started the scene—here, the tree—chooses one of the others to take with her off stage (“I’ll take the lovers’ carving.”) and they leave the third person alone on stage. That person repeats their identity (“I am the blue jay calling from the tree branch.”) and two more come on stage to find connected identities to that person. This person who was left on stage alone—this second time, the jay—now chooses one of his or her own to come off stage and the cycle begins again. Repeat as needed.

*
"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 research usually emphasizes the positive effect of play on the developing brain they have found that is important for adults too. Without play, adults may end up getting burned out from the 'hustle-bustle business' that we all get in involved in," says Marc Rekoff, 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." “The Serious Need For Play” Scientific American Mind Special Collector’s Edition, Winter 2014:


               LISTENING EXERCISE: WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS….
Objectives:
  • Focus on listening without interpretation to what another person is saying;
  • Develop creative thinking;
  • Foster interpersonal skills of attentive listening and responding without judgement

Step One: A topic about which people can hold opposite positions is chosen. It is best to choose a topic that is not controversial enough to generate highly emotional responses in order to focus on the exercise and developing the skill, e.g. “I love shopping malls” vs “Shopping malls are awful.”
Two partners face each other.
Each partner shares their opinion one sentence at a time without relating to the other person, e.g.
Partner 1: Shopping malls have everything you need in one place.

Partner 2: Shopping malls are energy hogs.
Partner 1: If I want to go to Sears, or Macy's or my kids need something, it's all right there.
Partner 2: They waste space and are bad for the environment.
Partner 1: And you can go to lunch or the movies right there.
Partner 2: Shopping malls are the devil.
This continues for 90 seconds.
Step Three: Each partners shares their opinion one sentence at a time, and the partner responds by paraphrasing the sentence without using any of the same words, starting with "So what you're saying is..."
Partner 1: Some of my best memories with my kids have taken place in shopping malls.
Partner 2: So what you're saying is that there are happy times you like to think about and that many of them occurred in places where stores are all inside one big building surrounding by a huge parking lot.
If partner 1 says "yes, that's what I said," then partner 2 shares a sentece and partner 1 paraphrases.
Some questions for processing this exercise:
What was it like to try to listen to someone else at the same time as you were talking?
Can you think of times when you are trying to listen to another person while your own thoughts are racing?
What was it like to share without your partner responding to what you said?
What was it like to paraphrase what your partner said?
What gets in the way of representing what the person was saying? Were you aware of your own bias, judgements or perceptions interfering with simply re-stating their point?

Approach/Avoid                                                                                                                Objectives: 
  • To explore the process of defensive emotional distancing or emotional closeness through physical movement;   
  • To observe emotional responses to others’ efforts to persuade;                        
  • To observe emotional responses when someone from our “side” is persuaded to move closer to the “other side”                                        
Groups of 3 face each other a few feet apart. Set up a conflict between 2 groups (could be between 2 people), e.g.,  going out for pizza or staying in for dinner; Secret Santa or no secret santa? Each team makes positive statements about their position in an effort to persuade the other team. When something persuades, participants move closer to the person who made the statement. When something dissuades, participants step back from the person who made the statement.
Process by discussing: What was like when members of your team moved closer to the other team but you were not persuaded?  What arguments pulled you toward the other team and why? How did the arguments made the other team influence your arguments?

"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

PLAYING WITH DEFENSES
Objectives: 
  • To identify different psychological defenses and the ways they may be expressed through movement and words; 
  • To explore the dynamics between an influencer and a person who expresses their reluctance to make a change through defensive behavior and conversation;

A psychological defense (denial, projection, rationalization, blaming, compensation, displacement,) is written on a piece of paper and given to one actor in a 2-person scene. Actor #1 is the influencer and is given an opening line, e.g. “go change your shirt.” Actor #2 is the defender, who responds in words and action expressing the defenses on the paper. The influencer must try to adapt his/her words and behavior to the defender so as to win the defended person over.
Processing: What defense seemed to be employed by the defender? What are other ways that defense might be expressed? What was it like to encounter this defense? Were any of the influencer’s attempts to reach the defender successful and if so, why?

 EMOTIONAL TRANSFER
Objectives:
  • Practice expressing a specific emotion in a live interaction;
  • Cultivate listening and receiving emotional information from a partner in a scene;
  • Demonstrate the phenomenon of emotional contagion
Two actors are assigned contrasting emotions, roles in a setting, and a mundane topic to discuss expressing the emotion they were assigned. At some point in the scene the actors switch the emotions from one player to the other. The players must make strong choices in the beginning of the scene to contrast the emotions. The transition is best appreciated it if is done subtly and the transfer is somehow justified within the context of the scene.
This can be done with high status/low status characters in a scene or characters of equal status.

"The perception of an emotional expression can cause the viewer to mimic elements of that expression and, consequently, to experience the associated feeling state. Emotional contagion is a multiply determined family of psychophysiological, cognitive, behavioral, and social phenomena in which eliciting stimuli arise from one individual, act upon one or more others, and produce emotional responses that are congruent (e.g., smiling response to smiles) or complementary (e.g., withdrawal from a threatened blow) to the eliciting stimuli. Responses may include experiential, physiological, and/or behavioral changes characteristic of the emotional expression being mimicked. Susceptibility to emotional
contagion may, therefore, be measured as the frequency with which emotional stimuli elicit an emotional expression characteristic of the eliciting emotion. The emotional response may be expressed cognitively (experiential states, appraisals, appreciations, fantasy, and perspective-taking), physiologically (neurophysiological arousal and patterned ANS activity), and behaviorally (expressive and instrumental behaviors).
Doherty, R. W. (1997). The Emotional contagion scale: A measure of individual differences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21, pp. 131-154.

EMOTIONAL CONTAGION 
Objectives: 
  • Experiment with the expression of different emotional states;
  • Demonstrate the phenomenon of emotional contagion through an improv game that involves adapting to new emotional tones entering into an ongoing interaction;
  • Experiment with sharing the same content or material with a variety of emotional tones;

3-4 group members self-select to become a class or a meeting of some sort, agreed upon by the group or the group leader. Another participant self-selects to be the leader or teacher of this group. A topic of discussion or a reading if selected  (at our workshop I used a piece of writing from Daniel Goleman’s book to keep with the theme of Emotional Intelligence and insert some of the information we want to cover into the actual exercise, but choose whatever information you want the group to work with) that the teacher or leader will share with the group. Ask the group for an emotion. Everyone in the role-play must assume that emotion as the improv begins. After a minute or so, other group members tag one of the players, take their place and introduce a new emotion. All players must now take on that new emotion and justify the transition as best they can. After a range of different emotions are played, the leader or a player calls “scene.”



STORY STRING  or STRING OF PEARLS
Objectives:

  • Full engagement with others in a creative process;
  • Practice skills of listening, accepting and building on the contributions of others;
  • Self-awareness-building through observing reactions to the tensions of this process;
A player gives the first line of a story in a declarative action statement, e.g. “I climb out the window.”  A 2nd player goes to the opposite end of the room and makes a declarative action statement that serves as the last line of the story, e.g. “I go to sleep.” Players must fill in with declarative action statements between the 1st and last line that flesh out the story one idea at a time. Each time a 'new pearl' enters the chain, everyone in line repeats their line in the order in which they are standing, until the story is completed . Each new statement should add information that explains what is already in the story while filling in necessary gaps until the story feels complete. The objective is to build on what has been given, let the group work together to develop the story even if that means it goes in a different direction than anticipated.



Jude Treder-Wolff is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS storytelling slamFollow her on Twitter

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