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THINK LIKE AN IMPROVISER: Make Fewer Assumptions, Notice More, Play At The Top Of Your Intelligence

Image by Rob Poynton from www.treehuggers.com

What makes improvisation unique as an art form and a method of self-development is its emphasis on heightened awareness of, and response to, what is presented in the moment. To do that we have to be willing and able to notice and accept what is offered. To notice and to listen to others are high-level interpersonal skills cultivated through the fun, engaging process of improvisation that have rich, real-life pay-offs. Because regardless of how well we think we listen and are aware of what others do and say, we can always improv. Sorry, I meant improve.
Responsiveness to the present moment does not mean we shut out all the knowledge, life experience and skill we bring to it. All of who we are is called upon to bring what improvisers call "playing at the top of our intelligence" to our response. Jimmy Carrane, a veteran improv performer, much respected teacher and host of the fantastic podcast Improv Nerd, describes this principle as making choices- in a game or scene - that are not the obvious, jokey, clever ones, but choices that come from honesty, vulnerability and reflect real life in some way. In this blog post he describes a moment onstage when he found himself actualizing this principle and the profound impact it had. "I realized that I shouldn't only be playing to the height of my intelligence when I'm on stage, but in every aspect of my life. Stop skating by at work. Stop letting friendships fizzle. Stop treating your body like shit. Be the best 'me' in all faces of my life. Now, my bosses are recognizing my improvements. My friendships are reignited. I've lost weight. This improv principle not only makes me a better improviser, it makes me a better person."  

Blog post by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
To play at the top of our intelligence means learning to let go of preconceptions and agenda about what we think people want from us or what we imagine will make others feel about us in a certain way. Its recognizing that we are not in the game to serve our need to make an impression or even to entertain, but to support our partners in the best way possible. To raise the standard of the conversation. To elevate the tension in a way that allows someone else to shine. If our partners in an improv exercise do the same for us, magic really can happen. Learning to do this in a workshop situation is an ideal training for resilience in real life.
An application of this method in organizations that do high-level science and engineering is described in a journal article  published by the Institute For Energy Technology. It focuses on the value of improvisation training in organizations as a whole so they can support individuals within organizations as they adapt to shifting circumstances and new information.

     "People should be socialized to make fewer assumptions, notice more, and ignore less," according to business researchers and writers Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe. Improvisation training aids in the abilty to "interpret signals in many ways and be sensitive to a greater variety of inputs," according to the study. Improvisation in Response implies the ability to create new patterns of anticipation and attention within a short time frame, that is, “thinking in action." 
Now more than ever, as the pace of change intensifies and the time between action and response grows ever shorter, the ability to deal effectively with the unexpected is of critical importance. Resilience is the "muscle" developed through improv training, a psychological, emotional and cognitive strength that results in greater adaptability and creativity in the face of stress.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer, president of Lifestage, Inc and an approved provider of Continuing Ed for social workers in NYS. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS a show that features true stories - with a twist. 

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