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Developing Emotional Intelligence Through Applied Improvisation: An Essential Mind and Skill Set for Social Workers workshop handout

Emotional intelligence grows through increasing the connections between emotions and higher cognitive functions - experiencing emotions consciously, labeling them cognitively
Workshop design and facilitation by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
and acting on them choicefully. It 
is the use of brain and mind to engage with the tensions of a complex situation rather than react to them, and this capacity is essential to the effective practice of social work in any professional setting. 
Applied Improvisation trains the brain and mind to engage with the tensions of a complex situation through the use of games and exercises that produce a temporary and low-stakes sense of uncertainty and disruption while at the same time producing a sense of fun and aliveness. Learning to manage emotions that emerge during the controlled sense of crisis that occurs when playing a game with others in a safe space is an ideal method for training ourselves to manage real-life situations of intensity and uncertainty without being derailed by the stress response.
The Four primary dimensions of Emotional Intelligence are:
Self-Awareness - the ability to identify our own emotions and what triggers them and to validate one’s own thoughts and feelings.
Self-Regulation/Self-Management - the ability to work through highly emotional reactions without being derailed by them, and to use emotions in positive ways; Self-regulation increases resilience to the stress response that could otherwise be triggered by the onset of a serious problem
Relationship/Social Awareness - the ability to recognize others' emotions, reactions and responses
Relationship/Social Management - the ability to choose our responses to others that are appropriate to different situations and are "intelligent" in the sense that we take into account the emotional tone and tensions without being controlled by them;

Daniel Goleman, Ph.d, researcher and author of the seminal book on this topic, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ and co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations defines self-awareness as "the ability to monitor our inner world – our thoughts and feelings." 
     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."

Excerpt from "Emotional intelligence training and its implications for stress, health and performance" in the journal Stress and Health, Volume 19 2003: "Emotions serve to draw attention resources to issues that in some way threaten the individual’s integrity; whether that be physical, social or psychological. Emotions are also considered to be adaptive, as they protect the individual from physical harm, facilitate maintenance of self-identity in social settings and guide the individual toward the achievement of tasks and goals. The experience of stress is the manifestation of negative emotions triggered by danger, threat or challenge and which signal to the body the need to prepare for actions of defense and protection." 

Excerpt from "Thinking Makes It So: Social Cognitive Neuroscience Approach To Emotion Regulation" in The Handbook Of Self-Regulation by Kevin N Ochsner and James J Gross: "One of the most remarkable of all human skills is our ability to flexibly adapt to nearly every imaginable circumstance. This ability arises in part from our capacity to regulate emotions that are engendered by the situations we face. Drawing upon an array of emotion regulatory strategies, we can accentuate the positive, remain calm in the face of danger, or productively channel anger. One particularly powerful emotion regulation strategy involves changing the way we think in order to change the way we feel."  
“Emotional competence requires being able to pilot through the emotional undercurrents always at play rather than being pulled under by them.”
Daniel Goleman, Working With Emotional IntelligenceBantam Books, 1998

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. 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.
The process of developing Emotional Intelligence is exactly the same as becoming a focused, responsive, spontaneous improviser. By becoming aware of the defenses and self-protections we employ to feel a sense of psychological safety we are more available to conscious, creative choices in response to the same conditions. The capacity to self-regulate and choose our attitudes and behavior is a tremendous persona freedom that we can use for empowered professional effectiveness when working under pressure and teach to clients to be more empowered in their lives. 



Name Pattern Game                                                                              Objectives: 

  • Demonstrate how quickly the brain lays down mental patterns;
  • Illustrate how disrupting even a brand new mental patterns is uncomfortable, which is why uncertainty is so uncomfortable; 
  • Focus on the here and now;      
  • Demonstrate that learning happens in those moments of uncertainty;                                                                  
  • The basic pattern: Everyone stands in a circle.  The facilitator starts the game by having everyone say their name, then points to someone in the circle while saying that person's name, keeping the hand extended to clearly show who is being pointed to. This person then points to someone else while saying that person's name, keeping hand extended. Play continues until everyone is being pointed to by someone – no repeats allowed – and the last person points to the facilitator and passes it back to him/her. Ask the participants if they remember who they received from and who they passed 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 "name" pattern and about 30 seconds in, begin the breakfast pattern so you have two patterns going at the same time. This added complexity will be very disruptive and difficult. Its okay. One pattern will almost certainly get dropped. Encourage the group to concentrate and keep the momentum with both as best they can. Use the results to discuss:

  • The power of patterning in the brain to produce a sense of certainty and how quickly patterns are created by the brain;
  • Failure or great difficulty with this task is a result of the way the brain works and everyone is in the same boat;
  • People do get better at this game and are able to handle more than one pattern at a time with a lot of practice, which means we need to embrace the "failure" as a way of examining the emotions triggered by uncertainty. If we keep going and use the emotions triggered by a task like this to understand our own brain we gain a sense of mastery not only over the task but over emotions like anxiety or frustration.
How is this situation like real-life situations of complexity, when we have competing demands on our thinking? How is this applicable to professional practice:
How can we help clients uncouple fear from failure, so they are able to try again when things do not go well? 

GAME: WHAT AM I DOING?                                                                                                           
  • Increase spontaneity; 
  • Produce mind/body dissonance* which disrupts habitual thinking;
  • Play with breaking out of cognitive patterns;
  • Experience a game that is difficult and look at "failure" differently as a result;

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

What Are You Feeling?
Same process as "What Are You Doing?" except this time each player expresses a strong emotion and when asked "what are you feeling?" answers with a different emotion than what is being expressed. This is a cognitive and emotional disruption that requires a great deal of concentration, and we will most likely make mistakes as a result, another wonderful opportunity to turn off the inner critic and accept the process of change as having many moments like this, which should prompt us to celebrate our willingness to try something new.
CLINICAL APPLICATION: Identifying a range of feelings and showing them with our face and body in a playful way is helpful to people who are uncomfortable with self-expression. Playing this game and purposely misnaming an emotion heightens awareness of what the emotion actually is and what it is like to fully embrace it. The process engages the emotional and cognitive functions without getting stuck in analysis and is a way to experience a positive emotional connection that can lead to deeper work.

  • To practice responding to the last offer made in the development of a story;
  • To practice letting go of agendas and connecting to what happens moment to moment;
  • To participate in a creative process that involves a low-risk degree of uncertainty;
  • To build on the offers made by others;
  • To practice managing uncertainty through engagement;
 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 a blue jay in the tree” and clasp the tree person’s arm. Or maybe they say “I am a kite stuck in the tree" and place a hand on the "tree's" shoulder. The next person adds something to the scene that builds on the very last offer that was made, e.g. "I am the nest the blue jay is sitting on," or "I am the kid whose kite got stuck in the tree." And so on, with each offer building on the very last one, not the ones that came before. The scene continues until in the group or scene has joined in. In a very large group, it might be best to break down into teams or 6-8. 


  • Experience expressing unedited, unrehearsed self-expression that combines thinking and feeling;
  • Commit to a position and then allow the creative mind to justify it;
  • Practice emotional engagement from different perspectives;
  • Examine an issue from a range of perspectives;
  • Experience both the role of attentive listener/active receiver and initiator of ideas;
  • Recognize that ambivalence or internal conflict that is below the level of consciousness can be worked through by exploring emotional states;
Two players sit side by side as if on a park bench. Person A is given a random suggestion from the group and takes a stand strongly for or against it, "Public transportation is the best and everyone should use it all the time." Player A expresses their firm opinion about this stand and justifies with details and emotion. Person B simply listens, receives and supports Person A. The more emotional and detailed the opinion, the better. After 1-2 minutes, Person A takes a walk away from the chair, then walks back, sits down and takes the exact opposite view, e.g. "Public transportation is the worst and no one should ever use it." The more extreme each position is the more fun the game is. Person B plays the same role of attentive listening, active receiving and supporting. It is an exercise in shifting gears and committing to a position. When we shift our thinking to a different perspective, new ideas come to mind.
    The psychological space created by exploring alternative points of view is filled by the creative mind. The creative mind is okay with uncertainty, and allows us to embrace and play with possibilities. This promotes a thinking skill that is available for problem-solving when emotions are high and the stress response is triggered, when there seems to be no right answer or a person is genuinely ambivalent. 
Clinical applications: Invite a client to decide a course of action and defend it, supported by another group member or by the therapist. After that position has been actively explored and defended, have the client get up from the chair, walk away and when they return to it embrace the exact opposite position, openly exploring and defending it, with support for that position. Process what each position feels like, explore any new "take" on the situation generated by looking at opposite points of view. 


  • Explore the experience of shifting gears emotionally about the same issue or from the same character;
  • Explore all the emotional dimensions of a human dilemma;
  • Explore the complexities of an issue based on different perspectives;

A fictional problem is developed by the group (in treatment and training groups this is a projective technique, in which the creative process of crafting a character in a dilemma can be a way for group members to work together on issues of concern to all). The space inside the circle is "squared off" into 4 spaces, one for each of the primary emotions: Happy, Sad, Fearful, Angry. A player begins by standing in the "happy" square and speaking out loud from that emotional space. Another group member calls out "change" at any time, at which point the player moves in clockwise motion to "Sad" and speaks from that space about the same issue. When "change" is called the player moves to "Fearful," then "Anger," then back to "Happy." The idea is to deepen the emotional truth each time the square is revisited. 

An additional space is added, not in the square but just outside it. This space is labeled THOUGHTS. The exercise is repeated with the same emotional dilemma now that some of the emotional complexity has been explored. This time, every time the player speaks out loud in an emotional space, someone in the group signals them at some point to move to the THOUGHTS space and think out loud about that last emotion. Then the player is signalled to move to the next emotion where he/she shares from the emotion until someone signals that he/she move to THOUGHTS, and so on. The idea is to move back and forth between emotion and cognition - to fully embrace a feeling state, and then move into thinking about the feeling. This process aids in the use of emotion in decision-making.
The players in the group can begin to call out the name of an emotion rather than just "change" and the player moving through emotions must move to that emotion, and add moving to THOUGHTS when appropriate to enrich the understanding of an emotional state.

Debrief suggestions:
  • What emotional truth was surprising about the issue under exploration?
  • What emotion was most challenging to explore and why?
  • What insights can we gain from mining the different emotions packed into a single decision or dilemma?

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc which designs and facilitates professional training and wellness programs for human service providers of all kinds. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a monthly storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. 


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