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Applied Improvisation For Emotional Intelligence & Stress-Resilience - Sept. 13, 2014 workshop handout

    "Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play."                 
Heraclitus, Greek Philosopher


  • Social-emotional engagement between trainer/teacher and group;
  • Overcoming communication barriers;
  • Experience a dynamic interplay between trainer/teacher and group;
This version of “color-advance” is appropriate for a teacher or trainer to use in the context of explaining some new material or information than for participants with one another, although a variation of it is used with participants – including kids or teens – which is described below. Using “color-advance” a storyteller or speaker can interact with a group while delivering the material in a way that empowers the group to ask for clarification or move ahead to the next point. The speaker begins, and group members can say only one of two directions:
"Advance" which means move to the next part of the story or point;
"Color" which means provide more detail and explanation about the current point; The
Facilitator: Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
idea is for a trainer or teacher to be attuned to what the group needs, to bridge the barriers between people that we simply do not know about until we interact in person. For example, some terminology in a presentation may be very familiar to the speaker but not at all familiar to some members of a group or team – admitting that we do not understand something can be difficult, and if participants do not ask for that information we lose them going forward. This exercise takes into account that we do not know what assumptions we are making that will interfere with communicating our message and empower the group to ask for what they need. It also produces a fluid dynamic between speaker and group which is more alive and stimulating than a flat lecture tends to be.
Color-Advance with kids and teens: This exercise can be done in pairs as a storytelling game, to practice responding in the moment to external cues. Two players, one person begins a story, the other says “color” to ask for more detail, emotion, description of a character etc or expansion of the present point, or “advance” to ask that the story move ahead. This game is also designed to get us thinking about key components of narrative.

Say It Again –

  • ·     To practice rapid response to external cues;
  • ·     To practice staying in the scene when having to make unexpected shifts;
  • ·     To practice creative thinking when under pressure;
   Two players, and 1 or 2 “directors” depending on the group. Two players begin a scene based on a suggestion from the group. The “directors” have a chime they can sound (or they can simply say SAY IT AGAIN) at random moments, and when they do the last player to speak has to say something else. The agreement can be that players can say the same thing in a different way or that they say an entirely different line that redirects the scene or a combination. The challenge is to keep the scene going despite these disruptions and find some kind of conclusion to it.

WORD DRILL – From Kat Koppett's blog This exercise is designed to allow

the cognitive mind to flow with ideas and quiet the censoring, editing functions that interfere with creativity. It is a “process only” exercise that gives no importance to content. Arrange the participants into groups of three to five. Ask one of them to stand facing the others, who form a horseshoe in front of them. One by one the other members of the group throw out a word. The person on the “hot seat” responds to each word with the first word or phrase that comes to mind. Then he fields the next word and responds. After a few minutes, the participants switch, and a new person takes the hot seat. Variation Play in pairs shooting words back and forth; Play by yourself—flipping from word to word in your head. Facilitation Tips:
  • Set up the activity as a content-less one. Assure participants that the words they say will not be analyzed.
  • Coach participants to respond as quickly as possible.
  • Coach participants to respond without thinking or verbalizing any mental process.
  • Coach the individuals who are giving words to shout them out as quickly as possible, and to give unrelated words as much as possible, to keep the hot seat person off balance. Let the group know that their job is to provide that person with a workout, so the other individuals may think of their words ahead of time if they find that helps.
WORD DRILL part two (same objectives as above)
This is best in small groups or with partners. Player A says a word and Player B must incorporate it into the first sentence of a story. Player A says another word, which is Player B works into the next sentence, and so on.
PlayerA: umbrella                                                                                                                  

Player B: I saw it was raining so I was glad I remembered to take an umbrella to the city.

Player A: tree

Player B: But when I was in Central Park and it started to rain, my umbrella got snagged on the branch of a big tree.

Player A:  inappropriate

Player B: And I cursed really loud which I knew immediately was inappropriate because there were all these kids there with their parents.                                                 

Player A: old lady                                                                                                 

Player B: And then this old lady started yelling at me for cursing in front of the kids but she was cursing more than I did!  
And so on until the story reaches some conclusion. If this is played in a group in which the storyteller gets a word from each member in turn, an agreement could be made to conclude the story in 1 or 2 rounds.
WORD DRILL part three (same objectives as above)
Player A starts telling a random story. At any time Player B may say "no" and Player B will have to change the direction of the story. Example:
Player A: It was a bright, sunny day and I had just walked out of my house


Player A: Actually I was running late so I went into the garage and drove out like a madman into the street. That’s when I noticed that I had forgotten to put my shoes on and my hair was still in a towel.

Player B: No

Player A: That’s when my neighbor began waving at me wildly. He seemed really upset.

Player B: no

Player A: He seemed really really excited to see me. I jumped out of the car and gave him the money I owed him from our poker game the night before.
And so on…

·         To explore the inter-relationship of mind, body, creativity/spirt and emotions;
·         To explore the dynamics of the stress response;
·         To demonstrate the functions of the pre-frontal cortex, the amygdala, the creative mind and their impact on the body;
Cortex: a very rational, logical person, thinks things through, looks at things in context. Wants to respond reasonably and not over-react. Can be objective and calm when others are freaking out but can also come across as cold and disconnected. 
Amygdala: emotionally intense, highly attuned to dangers of any kind and rings the alarm bells to things others might not even notice. Wants to protect everyone but has no sense of proportion.
Soma: Feels everything physically and is highly responsive to what the other characters say and do. What others notice and how they behave will impact Soma in a very direct and immediate way. Is a follower more than a leader but when he/she does take control is very forceful. 
Psyche: Creative and energetic, he/she connects everyone in any way possible, looks for meaning in everything. Is able to take any interaction to a higher level by keeping everyone focused on connection and collaboration, but can be a little woo-woo for some people.
The group chooses a dilemma that the scene will deal with. Players break into teams of 4. Each team assigns a role for each player based on the descriptions above. The team creates the character’s relationships, where the scene will take place and what the scene’s objective will be based on the dilemma. Each team then improvises a scene in performance for the other participants, playing out the conflict. Characters should make bold choices based on their role in the scene and “yes…and” one another as much as possible while staying true to the narrative being developed in the scene. When the scene reaches a conclusion the exercise is complete. If a scene hits a block, its okay. This is a hard exercise and it is more important to process the choices the players made than find a conclusion to the story. There is a significant creative challenge to managing the tension between staying true to the character and reacting to the dynamic playing out in the scene and even very seasoned improvisers can hit blocks as a result. Processing:
How did the other characters impact your character?
What were you aware of during the scene and how did that awareness inform your choices?
Can you see where you might have made a bold choice in the scene but held back? Understanding the reasons we hold back from making bold choices in a situation like this is the pathway to emotional intelligence.
How did the interaction among the characters inform about what is happening during the stress response in a human being?

Research out of Cornell University in 2012 shows that creativity is something people deeply desire and need to solve problems, make meaningful change and manage stress, but it is also fraught with internal conflict. The article "The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas" in the ILR Collection (a digital journal published by the Cornell Institute of Labor Relations) explores the reasons creativity is an internal struggle as well as one that complicates things in organizations:
  • Creative ideas are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people uncomfortable;
  • People dismiss creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practice - tried and true;
  • Objective evidence shoring up the validity of a creative proposal does not motivate people to accept it;
  • Anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to recognize a creative idea.

·    We are influenced by this bias internally in both subtle and very direct ways – particularly when trying to think coherently when under stress, stay in the flow of creative ideas and not get hijacked by the editing, censoring and judgmental mind that hangs out at the intersection of thought and emotion. The creative impulse is so sensitive that sometimes the slightest hint of rejection will drive it back into the shadows. Standardized education - as well as the many interpersonal and social experiences that negatively reinforce being different, unsure of ourselves, experimentation or standing out - as well as cultural influences that celebrate the intellect while marginalizing the creative leave us with a serious dilemma. We need and want to be creative, and for all these reasons are also cautious and self-conscious when it comes to actually being creative. 

A long and interesting article about the different brain functions involved with creative thinking and engagement has this important paragraph about the value of improvisation games and exercises to loosening up defenses and mental structures that interfere with creativity: "when you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the Executive Attention Network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Salience Networks. Indeed, recent research on jazz musicians and rappers engaging in creative improvisation suggests that’s precisely what is happening in the brain while in a flow state. -"The Real Neuroscience of Creative Cognition: A First Approximation" on Creativity Post

Research examining the development of creative and critical thinking in adolescents shows that creative thinking ability is associated with Internal Locus of Control, which is linked to stress-resilience, ability to take control of one's environment and shape relationships and general well-being. Read the study on this link: "The Effect of Teaching Critical and Creative Thinking Skills On The Locus Of Control and Psychological Well-Being in Adolescents" Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences Volume 83 3  July 2013: 51-56

"Simply thinking of yourself as a child can unlock your creative potential! In our study, we
had one group of people write an answer to the prompt, "You are 7 years old. School is canceled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?" The other group had the exact same instructions, only the first sentence was omitted, placing them in the present, as they are today (young adults). Both groups were asked to be as specific as possible, and wrote for approximately 10 minutes. People consequently performed a creativity test. Interestingly, we found that the group who experienced themselves as children for just a few minutes had significantly more original answers on the creativity test than those in the "adult" group. Even more surprising, those participants who identified themselves as introverts benefited from the child experience much more so than did extraverts." Thinking Of Yourself As A Child Can Unlock Your Creative Potential" on Creativity Post

Tim Brown, CEO of the design and innovation firm Ideo, has a great TED talk about the relationship between creative thinking and play. 

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is host and creator of the (mostly) TRUE THINGS storytelling slam. Follow her on Twitter @JuTrWolff


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