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Develop Emotional Intelligence Through Applied Improvisation: Continuing Education Training Workshop Hand-out

"You are the laboratory
and every day is an experiment.
Go and find what is new
and unexpected." Joel Elkes

“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

"In essence, emotional intelligence is the capacity to respond to stress-inducing events, people and situations in a conscious, creative way. As such, EI is not about emotions per se but more about the way in which individuals effectively integrate emotions with thoughts and behavior and so can act to reduce aversive emotional experiences." Slaski, M and Cartwright, "Emotional Intelligence training and its implications for stress, health and performanceStress and Health, 2003

The stress response is a biochemical event activated by the amygdala in the brain, which triggers the fight-flight-freeze response within milliseconds at the perception of a threat.  
Workshop design and facilitation by
Jude Treder-Wolff LCSW, CGP, MT
When the stress response is triggered by a psychological threat, adrenaline and cortisol produce the same rapid heart rate, increase in muscle tone blood flow to the extremities as when it is triggered by a physical threat. Blood flow is reduced to the digestive system and the pre-frontal cortex which we need to make reasoning judgments and think things through. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to navigate high-tension situations that could easily trigger the threat response by sustaining strong connections between emotional shifts and tensions and the cognitive capacities that are central to decision-making and problem-solving.
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;

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 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.

Improvisation is a heightened form of human interaction. The rules and structures are designed to promote a way of thinking that promotes an ideal environment for creativity and supportive exploration of problems and dilemmas. 
Improvisation occurs when 2 or more people fully engage with one another without scripts or agendas. The philosophy and skills that produce improvised scenes are translate directly to psychotherapy and therapeutic work. This workshop focused on core skills of improvisation that connect to the mind and skill set of Emotional Intelligence:
  • Attentive listening
  • Active receiving
  • Focused awareness
  • Emotional connection
"The key to receiving messages effectively is listening. Listening is a combination of hearing what another person says and psychological involvement with the person who is talking. Listening requires more than hearing words. It requires a desire to understand another human being, an attitude of respect and acceptance, and a willingness to open one's mind to try and see things from another's point of view." Ron Windle and Suzanne Warren, Communication Skills

  • Demonstrate the difficulty of focusing on what others are actually saying when distracted by internal monologues;
  • Thinking and interacting without the self-censor that can trigger the sense of threat;
  • Interpersonal connection in the spirit of a game
Participants get into pairs and sit facing each other and determine who is Person A and who is Person B. A random suggestion is taken from the group. Both partners then talk for 30 seconds nonstop while looking into each others' eyes. After 30 seconds, Person A repeats back everything he/she heard Person B say while Person B listens. Person B then does the same, repeating back everything he/she heard when both were speaking at once. Then for 1 minutes the partners have a give-and-take dialogue about what this experience was like. 

Debrief: What was it like to talk nonstop at the same time? (This is an external expression of something we are often doing internally while others are speaking, and some people have a constant monologue or critical response to what others are saying that interferes with actually receiving it for what it is). 
What was it like to talk about something nonstop having no way to predict what the topic would be?

  • 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?

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 has determined that we can cultivate Emotional Intelligence over the entire course of our life through self-awareness - "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 HealthVolume 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."  

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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