Skip to main content

THE IMPROVISER'S MIND SET: Creative Thinking For Complex Problems workshop handout

Workshop design and hand-out by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT

In psychotherapy or learning environments, the improviser's mind set is a way of approaching the present moment with clients from an expanded openness to who and where they are, seeing the same things through fresh eyes. Practice of skills in improvisation is an engaging way to become more aware of the power of relationship in learning and growth, including the subtle, nonverbal ways we communicate emotion to others. When we engage in improvisation games and exercises we strengthen the psychological and emotional "muscles" that increase responsiveness to subtle emotional shifts and enhance our ability to shift gears when necessary. These skills make therapy and learning more dynamic and alive. 

Every human interaction involves some degree of risk. Some risks are more obvious than others, e.g. we can ask someone out to lunch and they reject us, we communicate something important to a colleague and find it is misinterpreted. Many more levels of risk are embedded in the complex systems within which we must interact to engage with life, and those are not at all obvious. If we try to prepare for and predict all of these potential losses, rejections or failure we become mired in over-thinking and worry. This switches on the stress response and further reduces our capacity to listen and to problem-solve. 

More than anything, the improviser's mind set is a way of reframing risk and the experience of mistakes and failures. If we can manage the emotions and thinking that come up when things go badly, we can manage creative risks and use mistakes and failures to grow, innovate and make progress. The Improviser's mind set is an emotional and psychological state that provides a way through the uncertainties of all the risks we face and a skill set for piloting through stressful circumstances without being derailed by them. 

The improviser's mindset is a combination of these elements of interaction:
  • Readiness - engagement with the action and interaction, taking in what is going on around us with a willingness to contribute in ways that move things forward;
  • Relationship - exploring connections between things, ideas, and people is the heart of improvisation;
  • Receptivity - relating to people and events with "yes..and," with openness to what is happening moment to moment drives improvisation;
  • Responsiveness - receiving what others bring to a game, exercise or scene without judgment and building on it is the action of improvising;
  • Risk - allowing what others say and do in a game, exercise or scene to impact us and participating in ways that may take us beyond what is expected or comfortable is the spirit of improvisation;

When everyone involved in an improv game, exercise or scene is committed to thinking and participating from this mind set, seemingly magical things can be created in real time. The practice of creating with other people in this way cultivates an agile, creative and flexible mindset that is heightens the capacity to grasp situational dynamics and make creative choices about how to navigate complex problems and stresses in real life.

The skills developed through the process of improvisation are best understood as clinically relevant when looked at through the lens of Interpersonal Neurobiology, a field of research that combines neuroscience, psychology, systems theory and cognitive science. 

Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of The Developing Mind, The Healing Power Of Emotion and many other books related to this field of knowledge, describes the central principles of Interpersonal Neurobiology as: 
  • We are who we are, as we are, in relation to one another. 
  • The mind is a relational process that essentially regulates the flow of energy, hence, the "interpersonal" of interpersonal neurobiology. 
  • Identity is not contained so much within an individual, but between individuals.
  • Through interaction and impacting one another we contribute to one anothers' development.
The essence of improvisation is the focus on the person right in front of us, on the present moment with another human being and allowing ourselves to be impacted by that person and respond with spontaneity. It is making the most out of what is given, doing whatever we can with it, letting go of agendas so that something new can develop. The psychological "muscle" developed through improvisation strengthens the ability to adapt to shifting circumstances and to find what is useful in any situation. Knowing that we can adapt removes a layer of anxiety about what might happen next and replaces with a greater confidence that we can use the tensions of uncertainty to tap into creative resources. 

Danish Clap
Get out of analytic mindset 
Focus on partnership through nonverbal connection
Promote a sense of play and a playful approach to new experience
Objectives that promote the improviser's mind set:

  • To trust that things will happen when you're not pushing/driving;
  • Connect through nonverbal activity;
  • Experience relating to others through nonverbal activity;
  • Strengthen skills in observing subtle shifts and changes in others' movement and behavior;

Train group members to focus on each other as a pathway to building up the group trust;
Participants standing in a circle, the facilitator makes a simple move that is "passed" to the next person, who repeats it as closely as possible and passes it to the next person and so on around the circle. As the movement is repeated it will change in subtle ways. After a few rounds, the leader begins to exaggerate the facial and physical gestures that accompany the movement as it goes around, so it becomes heightened. 
CLINICAL APPLICATIONS: Interpersonal Neurobiology posits that the nonverbal, subtle, cues communicated through these kinds of exercises accelerate a sense of belonging and connection that is the foundation for effective psychotherapy. This exercise is a heightened experience of nonverbal connection that also grounds the participants in a physical activity in which everyone is on the same page. While we may not use an activity like this in individual psychotherapy sessions, it is an experiential way to focus on the relationship between movement, ways of belonging and interpersonal connection.

Objectives that promote the improviser's mind set:
  • To strengthen skills in observing and attending to others;
  •  To explore intuitive awareness of others;
The above game continues, with a group member in the middle of the circle who closes his/her eyes while someone in the circle is chosen to be the leader of the movement. Once that person is chosen the players start following the leader's movement who shifts and changes them in subtle ways. The person in the middle tries to see if he/she can determine who is leading. The ideal is for the group movement to flow to the point that it is difficult to determine who is leading.
CLINICAL APPLICATIONS: For the clinician this game is a way to fine-tune intuitive sensing. It can take many tries to discern the leader of a round in this game when a group is very attuned to one another. In a psychotherapy or personal growth group this is an effective exercise for cultivating the nonverbal positive connection within a group, which Interpersonal Neurobiology shows can be a healing force for everyone involved. 

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. Playing a game like this 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.

Action Figure 

  • Let go of control and truly collaborate with a team;
  • Practice mind/body dissonance and pilot through the discomfort by having fun;
  • Listen to others' contributions and build on them to move the interaction along;
The group divides into 2 teams – 1 person is the action figure, the other 2 are the controllers – the 2 action figures are in a scene together. They cannot move by themselves but they can talk. The controllers put them into position in response to the unfolding dialogue, 1 movement at a time. Each movement must be justified in some way – ideally the controllers are responding to the dialogue, the dialogue is responding to the movement etc and the 2 action figures are responding to one another.
Discuss: how did the group get onto the same page as the interaction proceeded? What was required to make this interaction successful?
CLINICAL APPLICATION: This exercise is a way of making the invisible visible - the invisible but very real constraints people feel on their choices, and their ability to move ahead in their lives. By playing with the idea of being restricted and having only the power to speak we can explore what its like to feel controlled by relationships, social forces, responsibilities or a way of thinking. In the same way, the "controllers" who had no power to speak but could move the "action figures'" were constrained by the rules of the game and perhaps by the interaction that was unfolding. It is a playful way to initiate discussion about where we have or do not have control, what that feels like and what can be done to gain a greater sense of control over one's progress in life.
New Yorker cartoon
  • Discover different perceptions of the same thing:
  • Explore possible explanations or approaches to the same problem;
  • Collaborate with a partner;
Participants pair up. A copy of the same New Yorker cartoon with no caption is given to each pair. They are given 5 minutes or less to discuss what is happening in the cartoon and prepare to play it out with one or more lines being spoken. When each group is ready, these different stories drawn from the same picture are shared with the group. 

Tolstoy's 3 Questions - a reading of a play adapted from the short story. Read the original short story here. 

Resources about Interpersonal Neurobiology and its implications for psychotherapy, education, and any kind of group work as well as relationships in general:

"An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to Psychotherapy: Awareness, Mirror Neurons, and Neural Plasticity in the Development of Well-Being," Dr. Dan Siegel, Psychiatric Annals, 2006

Resources for rethinking mistakes and failure:

"What I Learned From Jad Abumrad About The Secrets of Creative Risk-Taking

Ten Steps To Celebrate Failure Through Design Thinking

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc which designs and facilitates experiential training for professionals, organizations, agencies and conferences, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a monthly storytelling show on Long Island that features true stories - with a twist. Follow her on Twitter.


Popular posts from this blog

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 crea

WARM-UP EXERCISES FOR GROUP WORK - For Therapeutic, Educational or Training Groups

Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP , Director of Training at Lifestage, Inc and Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP, Trainer/consultant and writer/performer. Follow on twitter @JuTrWolff         “To begin assembly one must have the right attitude,” goes a Japanese instruction for assembling a particular object, as quoted in Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. The "right attitude" is one that best serves the action we are preparing to engage in, j ust as an athlete warms up his/her muscles before using them in the stress of a work-out or game. Psychological and emotional "muscles" that are properly warmed up will perform more effectively and make it less likely that we will experience strain or allow fear to produce a shut-out when things get rolling.     The right warm-up makes everything learned in a training situation or classroom more accessible and immediately useful to the trainee/student. New skills and knowledge - in education, personal growth or a profe

Stories To Light Up The Night: An Interview With International Teacher/Trainer, Storyteller and Author Susan Perrow

        "It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you." Ben Okri, Birds of Heaven Stories can change your life and when they do you almost never see it coming. The way a story gets into our consciousness is often subtle and suprising. Something about it sticks. And if we allow the story to do its work it sticks exactly where we need it. This is true of both receiving a story and making one. The skills required to weave together character, conflict and color to create a vivid and imagination-grabbing tale that is also transformative takes time, training and experience to develop. It helps to be familiar with the impact of stories on our own inner life, recovery and growth. It helps also to have an inspiring, gifted teacher to guide the process.        Such was my experience in April at a full-day wo