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Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques Using Applied Improvisation-workshop handout


"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of them." Linus Pauling

What Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques and Applied Improvisation have in common:
  • Here and now focus
  • Collaborative
  • Goal-oriented or Problem-focused – what is it I am trying to do and what thinking gets in the way? What beliefs are guiding that thinking?
  • Aims to empower the client or student through skill development in cognitive agility, reality testing and shifting gears
To change our thinking from the negative to the positive requires effort and practice. Self-protective, defensive mental habits are easily formed by stressful events and triggered by perceived threats, even when the threats are coming from our own thoughts - when the call is coming from inside the house. Defensive, negative thoughts narrow the field of attention, while positive, creative thoughts expand it.

Cognitive-behavioral techniques exploit the brain's ability to form and rely on patterns by redirecting attention and mental activity to more positive and productive thoughts that have the power to become self-reinforcing. Because our brain rapidly forms and relies upon patterns, what we repeatedly think and do becomes part of our automatic thought process. Habits of mind become belief and can be astonishingly resilient. All sort of things can happen that could prove the belief wrong but the habits of mind will persist and keep it alive. 

The power of thoughts to shape mood and perception has a remarkable impact on what we think of as real. Depression, anxiety, chronic stress and trauma can produce mental patterns that are negative, limiting and narrow in focus, but feel safe and inescapable. Thoughts rise out of beliefs, which are often subconscious or unconscious and fuel perceptions. Beliefs are inherited from family systems or cultural realities, some are formed by individual experience. They are a powerful force in how we frame and name experiences, e.g. "My dreams will never come true so its better never to have them" as a repeated, self-protective thought turns into a genuine block to making plans or taking steps to realize goals, then a repeated pattern of roads not taken and a sense of being trapped in familiar ruts; "Bad things happen to people because people deserve bad things" can induce sadness, guilt and the inability to move past a traumatic or painful event, which leads to abandoning self-care or changes that strengthen the "muscles" needed to avoid further victimization; "If I fail at something it would be better not to have done it at all" makes being a novice or beginner at some activity threatening to the extreme, so we experience paralysis when trying to do anything new.  
    Dr. David Burns, a cognitive-behavioral specialist and author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy identifies 3 core principles upon which Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is based: 
1) Moods are created by our "cognitions" or thoughts;
2) When we are feeling depressed, thoughts are dominated by a pervasive negativity;
3) The negative thoughts which cause emotional turmoil nearly always contain gross distortions; 

Habitual thoughts tend to feel true, even if a reality check proves them to be more mechanical than real, so shifting to a different thought process can feel uncomfortable, wrong, and false. To produce new neural pathways we have to think and behave in new ways long enough for a pattern to be established. This is a creative challenge, and creative experiences are very effective toward producing these patterns. While negative thoughts produce a sense of threat which narrows the field of attention, focusing attention on our strengths, gifts, supports and resources expands the field of
attention. Positive, collaborative, creative experiences garner our personal power, and when combined with action are even more engaging to the machinery of the brain. With practice and repetition, newly-developed ideas, roles, and beliefs eventually move from the cerebral cortex, where the conscious choice to make change begins, to the parts of the brain that manage simpler, more automatic processes. Neural pathways develop through this process of repetitive action and determine what will eventually become a “new normal.” 

The principles of Applied Improvisation directly connect to our ability to change the way we think through conscious awareness and creative choice-making. The way this works is summed up on the website, which specializes in research-based brain games:
"1. That the brain we're born with can be changed. Technically speaking, they call that neuroplasticity (You can teach an old brain new tricks.)
2. we can change it by adopting new thought patterns, by training our brain as if it were a muscle, to overcome negative thoughts.
3. All of us are hard-wired for negativity (blame evolution!) but can profoundly benefit from learning new ways to react and deal with everyday stresses.
4. It doesn't take a lot of effort to make a real difference in your life. A few simple and even entertaining mental diversions will change things."


Creative Introductions
Develop interpersonal connections between people in the group;
Practice active listening;
Practice sharing about self to increase safety in the group;
Generate spontaneity in the group;

Group members sit in pairs, facing each other. Each dyad decides who will be Person A and who will be Person B. Person A will talk for 1 minute without stopping about a topic assigned by the group leader while Person B listens without interrupting. As soon as the topic is given the exercise begins. Suggested topics are neutral, e.g.: breakfast, fruit, autumn, water, blue, stars, etc. Person A should share whatever comes to mind from their own experience on the topic. After time is called, Person B then shares with the larger group what he/she heard Person A say, in the style assigned by the leader. The style is assigned immediately before the group member is about to speak so there is minimal time to think too much. Styles include: 
Real Housewives
Sports announcer
Very proud 
Very impressed
This is something we really shouldn't be talking about
Breaking News!

Players then regroup into new dyads. Everyone who was Person B in the first round are now Person A. A new topic is given, something a bit more personal, e.g. "Talk about your favorite fictional hero and why" "Talk about your favorite real-life hero and why" "Talk about a strength you are glad you possess" "Talk about a goal you have achieved that once seemed impossible." Person A shares, Person B repeats in the style assigned by the leader.

PORTKEY - Ted DesMaisons writes about the origin of the name of this exercise in his blog post "Return of Spontaneity School: A Third Set Of Improv Games For The Classroom and Work Enviroment" on website Anima Learning.
  • Enhance the sense of belonging within the group;
  • Create emotional and social connections within group members;
  • Increase knowledge about moments in each participant's life;
  • Provide an opportunity to share without overthinking;
"The game’s name traces back to the Harry Potter books where a portkey was an everyday object that, when touched by wizards, would transport them away from the Muggle world off to Hogwarts or some other location in the wizarding world."

The group sits in a circle, and player #1 gets a suggestion for an everyday object, e.g. Towel. Player #1 begins to share a story arising from the word, starting with the image it inspires, e.g. "Towel takes me to a day at the beach with my little sister..." and finishing the story with an object that is then offered to the next person: "and we took the seashells into the house and put them in a vase with flowers. So I give you a vase." 

  • Demonstrate radical acceptance
  • Experience radical acceptance
  • "Break set" mentally - practice thinking in an entirely new way
  • Enter into the state of play in which many possibilities exist
Round 1: Participants stand in a circle. A category is suggested from the group. Player 1 has to name 3 things in this category, e.g. "fruit." After the first one the group yells "1!" very enthusiastically, after the 2nd one they yell "2!" and after the third "3!" Then big applause. A new category is chosen for the next player and the group does the same. A new category is named for each player. 
Round 2: A category is suggested by the group for the first player. Player 1 then "acts out" something within that category and the next player in the circle names it. Absolutely anything the person acting out does is great, and whatever label it is given is accepted. The group calls out "1, 2, 3!" as in the first round. The idea is to let go of old ideas about "getting it right" or worrying about content. Its about radical acceptance and unconditional support.
Round 3: A suggestion of "something that doesn't exist" from the group and the facilitator guides the group to make the category a little more complex, e.g. "movies starring Robert de Niro"  "books by Stephen King" or "talk shows." A player "acts out" a title and the next player makes up the thing that doesn't exist as if that's what is being acted out. After each one the group calls out "1, 2 3!" with great enthusiasm.

Debrief: Radical acceptance from a group combined with a creative challenge in which any response is correct is an entirely different way to interact with other people than what we usually encounter. Doing an activity like this is a way to examine what it feels like to connect with others in this way and what is it like to play with ideas and receive unconditional support. The emphasis on fun and positivity creates a new rule for engaging with others and reduces the tendency to overthink when doing creative activities.

Focus the group on levels of energy produced through working together;
Express group connection without conversation or content;

The group stands in a circle and counts out loud from 1 to 10, going from very soft to very loud, then back down from 10 to 1 gradually lowering volume. Players should make eye contact and take cues from one another based on what they see and hear as the group goes through the process.
Round 2: The group counts out loud from 1 to 10 going from very relaxed to very intense, without going to a high volume, and then back down again.
Round 3: The group counts from 1 to 10 from expressing an emotional state of "good" to full-bodied joy, and then back down again.
Debrief - What were you aware of while doing this exercise? What was it like to connect with the group in this way? What was it like to express intensity without volume - what feelings and awareness comes up? If intensity automatically comes up as anger or other negative emotions, what other possibilities for intensity exist, e.g passion, excitement. What is it like to focus on joy? 

Song Structure Monologue
Explore a position or foundational cognitive belief;
Look at a cognitive belief from more than 1 perspective;
Learn a structure for effectively stating and supporting an idea;
Think on one’s feet and engage with the creative process;

A song structure is described and used to create solo monologues that examine a cognitive belief expressed as a thesis statement:
Chorus: Thesis statement that is the core idea explored in the song, e.g. "People are the way they are and cannot change."
Verse: Makes an argument for the thesis statement, expands upon it, e.g. "if you don't learn something when you're young, you will never learn it. That's true for all of us, etc"
Bridge: The "on the other hand" section, e.g. "on the other hand, I've seen people go from being hard core alcoholics to completely drug and alcohol free. I've seen people decide to start taking care of themselves and get really healthy in midlife."

A physical position for each part of the song structure is established on the stage or in the room. A suggestion for a topic is given by the group, e.g. “Italian food.” A player stands in the CHORUS position and makes a thesis statement about the topic, e.g. “Pizza is the best Italian food ever invented.” Then the player moves to the position for VERSES and improvises an argument for that position, e.g. “Pizza has everything — carbs, vegetables and dairy. It can be the foundation for all sort of different styles and toppings…” and after completing a thought moves to the CHORUS position and repeats the thesis statement. Then another verse, followed by another CHORUS. Then the player moves to the BRIDGE position and takes a slightly or very different position, e.g. “on the other hand, pizza is really just a fast food, its not very nutritious. It isn’t as creative and exotic as lasagne or all the different kinds of pasta, etc” ending with, “but who am I kidding, pizza is the best Italian food ever invented” (repeat the thesis statement).

Goal-Setting - Envisioning The Future Self
Use and stretch imagination in a focused, problem-solving process;
Examine a process of change from a new perspective;
Explore a cognitive,improvisational problem-solving technique;
Explore a creative thinking approach to a problem or goal;
Use the improvisation model of thinking in terms of small steps that build on one another to approach a larger goal;
Establish the priorities required to move toward the goal;
Look at the process of change in manageable steps;

The group chooses a fantastic goal - something imaginative and large in scale, e.g. "Reverse climate change." One group member stands at a far end of the space, in a position we will call "position #10" and says "The goal is accomplished. Climate change is reversed." The group then discusses what would have had to happen immediately before it could be announced that climate change is reversed. If this situation was a movie, and the ending was someone announcing that climate change had been successfully reversed, what would have been the final step in a process to make that happen. Using the imagination as if writing a screenplay, the final step might be "a technological device is deployed that reverses climate change." A group member stands a short distance from the person in position #9 and says "the device that reverses climate change has been deployed." Then the group brainstorms what would have led to a device being deployed, e.g. "the device is built." A group member stands in position #8 and says "the device is built." And so on until the group is at position #1, where the very first step in solving the problem is identified. Then the group states out loud each stage of the process starting at position #1 and ending at #10. 

After a fantastic goal is explored, use real-life goals to do the same process. Start with the outcome and work backwards. This can be done with individual clients as well as groups. In individual work, have the client go to the far end of the room for position #10 and move toward the seat where he/she spends time in the consulting room, the present position. 

Research: Read "You Make Better Decision If You 'See' Your Future Self" in Harvard Business Review

Read about a written version of this exercise on MindTools

Explore underlying beliefs that produce cognitive distortions;
Identify some of the beliefs that cognitive-behavioral techniques address;
Examine the behaviors and thoughts that result from fixed beliefs;

In the style of the Dating Game that used to be on television, 3 players take the role of men or women in a line-up of potential dates. A 4th player asks them questions. Each person in the line-up is given a fixed belief on a piece of paper and their responses should be improvised based on how a person who is coming from this belief would think and speak. As more is revealed over the course of the game, the interviewer attempts to nail down the belief represented by each player. The game is over when the interview identifies the belief of each one. This can also be done in teams, using the Dating Game format of asking fun questions on a theme. 

Some beliefs that can be used in this game:

I am so unlucky and there is nothing I can do to change that.

I deserve to be adored.

Nothing I do is ever appreciated.

No one must know how anxious I really am all the time.

Nothing ever works out for me.

I shouldn’t have to be the one who has to change.

Other people treat me very unfairly and that’s why I’m unhappy

Its too late for me to be try to be happy

If I fail at something, it would be better if I hadn’t done it at all

I peaked in high school

I can’t be happy unless my mother is happy. And she’s never happy.

I need someone else to notice and affirm me to have any direction in my life.

Admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness

It is never a good idea to admit to being happy.

A person’s talents and strengths are set at birth and cannot be changed. I wasn’t born with much.

I should be in control at all times.

I should be nice to everyone at all times no matter what.

I must make other people feel good at all times to have any self worth.

Nothing good is going to come of this.

If I get what I want I won’t know what to do with it. So its better if I don’t.

People will be jealous of me if I succeed. I can’t handle that.

Cognitive-behavioral techniques were effective in reducing both psychological stress and physical pain in this study "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques For Distress and Pain In Breast Cancer Patients: A Meta-Analysis Journal of Behavioral Medicine

The Basic Principles of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy by Judith Beck, Phd

Listen to Improv Nerd, a podcast by Chicago improviser and teacher Jimmy Carrane, for lots of great conversations about improv as an art form that leans into the ways that improvisation experiences and training strengthen skills associated with social-emotional development over the lifespan, self-awareness, personal growth, communication and other interpersonal skills. 

Read: "Improv Is A Safe Space: Laughs Help Treat Mental Health Issues"

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc which designs and facilitates creative professional development training and is approved by New York State as a Provider of Continuing Education for social workers, provider #0270. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a storytelling show that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds.


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