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Workshop Handout - Strengthen Resilience Through Improvisation

"Words can introduce you to an idea, 
but we think it takes an experience to transform you." 
Alan Alda, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face

"We define resilience as 'the capacity to be resourceful and creative, to make choices, and to take effective action, no matter what is going on.'" Presence and Resilience

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

Resilient people share 3 common traits, according to research discussed in Harvard Business Review: 1) acceptance of reality; 2) deep belief that life is meaningful; 3) an uncanny ability to improvise. Training in improvisation is an engaging, imaginative way to power up all three of these traits. For therapists, educators and other professionals working with human development, the games and exercises that cultivate the skills for improvisation are remarkably effective tools. The "yes...and" principle at the heart of improvisation is built on acceptance of the reality created by others players or the director or group leader. To practice that acceptance, we must remain open to what is in front of us, let go of expectations of what others will say or do, and enter into a psychological space of mutual vulnerability and uncertainty. This can be challenging, because when there is sufficient psychological threat, automatic self-protective habits of mind that help us feel safe limit cognitive ability and narrow our perception. The skills cultivated through improvisation exercises — agreement to interact within a given structure, receiving what others offer, building on the offer, committing to an action, emotional connection, generosity of spirit - are the tools that develop the ability to accept reality and deal with what we can neither predict nor control. 
     “Improv is about being spontaneous. It is about being imaginative,” writes Paul Sloane in The Leaders Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills. “It is about taking the unexpected and then doing something unexpected with it….The key is to be open to crazy ideas and building on them. And funnily enough, this is exactly what is needed if we are going to make our enterprises more creative and agile." 
   The moment-to-moment interactions that unfold during improvisation games and exercises are an opportunity to practice skills that help us manage all kind of fear, from fear of looking bad to fear of fear of actual danger. Because the psychological strengths to respond creatively and effectively under pressure, and to make the most out of what we are given, lie at the heart of resilience. We can empower people to construe events through their own lens, that the same experiences can be viewed through different perspectives and to connect to their own sense of meaning. 
"Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened," writes Maria Konnikova in "How People Learn To Become Resilient, in The New Yorker. "In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected." She describes research at Columbia where "neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects."


Get out of overthinking and grounded in experiences of the body;
Discover what rises up in imagination through simple body awareness;

Players mill around the space. Someone suggests a body part to lead with, e.g. "left ear" and everyone moves as if led by their left ear, then "right knee" or "top of the head" or "chin." Ask players to focus on what perspectives shift when coming from different body parts, what emotions or visuals rise up. Leading with a specific body part focuses attention in a very specific way that influences perception of self, the space and others. It can be a way to create characters with very specific traits that can be deployed in scenes to express and look at attitudes and points of view.

Accept others' offers and surrender control, which is key to both improvisation and to resilience; 
Play with the body as a medium of expression;
Explore how different people can perceive the same thing as having different meanings;

Players get into pairs and decide who is Person A and who is Person B. Person A "sculpts" Person B into a pose. Person B willingly follows the directives until Person A considers their sculpture complete. The poses are held as all the A people walk about the space and observe the different "sculptures." Ask players to name or identify the "sculptures" and get as many different perspectives on each one as rise up from the group. 
Part 2: Person B "sculpts" Person A and the same process repeats. After the different perspectives are identified, ask the group to find a connection between 2 "sculptures." How might 2 of these characters created by the pose be connected? 
In what ways are they alike? What do they share? 

VENN Diagram idea - looking at poses and imagining how they might connect is a way of looking at intersectionality between people. There are 2 complete characters in their own right, and there is an area between them where their worlds intersect, a third space created by their relationship. Two very different characters might both have a similar emotional expression, or seem to This is a way to learn about VENN diagrams 

Be flexible and adaptable based on what others on the team are choosing to do;
Do your best and let go of trying to be perfect;
Get on the same page with team players through observation and behavior, not verbally;
Think creatively and experience the reward chemistry that can come through achieving the goal;

A team of 4 players is instructed to make a 4-letter word using their bodies, without discussing how they are going to do it. As each team player commits to a single letter, the others find their spot and do their best to complete the word. 

Another team does the same with a different word.
Use 4 digit numbers, e.g. 2017, 1963,
Make a race car

Make a castle
Make a desk

Debrief: What worked to understand what others were doing? Did you have to give up an idea you had and try something else? How did it feel to achieve the goal? There are different pathways to the same objective. 

Practice the "yes...and" principle in dynamic interaction;
Solve a low-stakes problem with a partner (strengthens thinking associated with resilience);
Practice taking a role with commitment and creativity (strengthens thinking skills associated with resilience);
Collaborate with a partner;

A player leaves the room. The group decides on a specific quirk that his/her "blind date" will have, e.g. he is Batman, or she is a mermaid, or he is obsessed with the Beatles. The group brainstorms how the player who will be the blind date will express this quirk, suggesting how to move, speak and references that will help communicate the quirk without naming it. The player who left the room returns to the date. The interaction is led by the date with the quirk, who speaks, makes references and behaves in ways that express the quirk. The other player can best figure out what the quirk is by "yes...anding" this behavior, e.g.
Quirky date: All you need is love. I say it all the time. Because I get by with a little help from my friends.
Date: I agree, all you need is love. Wow, everything you say sounds like a song title.
Quirky date: Is it too much if I say I wanna hold your hand?
Date: You can definitely hold my hand. Because you love the Beatles and I love the Beatles.

The game is over when the date names the quirk. With practice, the quirks can become more complex to make it more challenging, e.g. he is a secret agent who is also constantly craving macaroni and cheese, or she is the Queen of England with a huge comic book collection. The resiliency strengths developed through a game like this are the ability to think on your feet, commit to an idea and try it out, accept what is given with humor and creativity. The stakes are low but the rewards are great.

Practice spontaneity in a structured creative experience;
Practice focused listening and heightened awareness;
Encourage creativity and self-expression;

4 players stand in a line and are each assigned a story style, e.g. Documentary, Children's book, romantic comedy, comic book, soap opera, western, detective thriller;
Another player "conducts" the telling of a story. He/she points to a player who begins the story in the style he/she has been assigned. At any moment the conductor points to another player, who picks up the story immediately, even finishing the sentence the last player began, in the style he/she has been assigned. The conductor continues to point to each player as the story progresses, in a dynamic interplay that leads to a conclusion.

Practice working within a specific improv structure;
Practice the yes...and principle of building a scene through simple, specific choices;
Experience the skill-building that leads to greater spontaneity in scenes;
Experience the skill-building that strengthens the resiliency skill of creative thinking and problem-solving;

A scene begins by Player 1 doing some specific physical behavior. Player 2 enters the scene and with 1 line identifies "who" Player 1 is and what their relationship is. Player 3 enters and creates a dilemma of some kind that relates to this relationship. Player 4 enters and provides a solution to the problem. Each new choice will change the story and ideally should enrich the characters' relationship to one another in unexpected ways.
For example:
Player 1 stands up very straight and salutes;
Player 2: Stands face to face with Player 1 and salutes back, saying "I'll follow you anywhere, Mr. Smith. You're the best boy scout leader I've ever had."
Player 3: Mr. Smith, you're not under arrest but we're going to have to take you in for questioning about your wife's disappearance.
Player 4: This is awesome, Jimmy. Now we can get our detective badge!

With practice, this game is a powerful way to develop the ability to make very specific offers that build a scene without taking control of it. This is essential when improvising, because the most creative exploration of an idea happens when we let go of trying to control or predict what will happen next, and simply respond beat by beat. In longer scenes we will see themes and characters will emerge, but the process learned in this exercises strengthens the ability to think pro-actively and with purpose, shifting gears as new realities emerge.

Five Elements of Resilience 
The five central elements that can serve as focal points for developing resilience are: Purpose, Perspective, Partnerships, Pro-activity, and Practice. Each covers a lot of territory. The power of each element is enabled by a sixth: the inherent capacity to choose where to focus and direct one’s attention. Energy and action follow attention and awareness. It follows that choosing where a leader places his or her attention is at the core of maintaining a capacity to be resourceful and creative." Presence and Resilience

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc which is approved by NYS as a Continuing Education provider for social workers, provider #0270, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling that features true stories - with a twist - told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds.


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