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Good Games For Great Relationships: Strengthening Interpersonal Communication Through Applied Improvisation

The games used to train improvisers are particularly effective for developing
Workshop design and facilitation
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT
interpersonal skills, because of the unique challenges of improvisation: to create something in real time collaboration with others, having no script, no director, no rehearsal and no preplanning. Improvisers closely listen, observe, notice, and support one another. And through learning to read and respond to what our improv partners are expressing through play, we can cultivate skills that are essential for real life relationships. 

 The concept that play has serious learning value in American social-emotional development and education was originated by social service worker Neva Boyd, who was prominent in the first half of the 20th century and very involved with the playground and recreation movement.  In her essay The Theory Of Play she wrote that through games "children learn language skills, socialization, cooperation, and even morality, because all must agree on the rules and abide by them for a game to be any fun. And the act of playing changes the participant. Play involves social values, as does no other behavior. The spirit of play develops social adaptability, ethics, mental and emotional control, and imagination." One of her students, Viola Spolin, became "the drama supervisor for the WPA Recreational Project in Chicago where she worked with children and recent immigrants in low-income neighborhoods," according to her biography on "She felt the need to establish a form of theater training that incorporated what she’d learned about the benefits of play that could reach across divisions of culture and language. Lectures about traditional theater techniques were useless with children or adults with limited English skills, but when those lessons became the focus of a game, the students were able to incorporate them organically full of the spontaneous physical expression needed for true theatrical communication."
Play may be even more important for adults than for kids. According to the article "Why What You Learned In Pre-School Is Crucial At Work" in the New York Times blog The Upshot  the greatest job growth is in fields that require strong interpersonal skills and the ability to collaborate with others. “Although research usually emphasizes the positive effect of play on the developing brain they have found that is important for adults too. Without play, adults may end up getting burned out from the ‘hustle-bustle business’ that we all get in involved in,” says Marc Rekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Boulder, in "The Serious Need For Play" in Scientific American. "Adults who do not play may end up unhappy and exhausted without understanding exactly why.”

These games are designed to explore the concept of, and practice skills in, giving and sharing focus in relationships. This is the foundation of interpersonal trust and communication that drives successful partnerships and groups.

Human In Houses
  • Warm up the group to action
  • Play with nonverbal communication
  • Play with the theme of people co-creating

  • Group breaks into groups of 3 and form a circle of these trios. The middle person in each trio stands with arms down and plays the role of "human." The other players on either side each extend their arms above the head of the middle player, forming a kind of "roof" over their head and play the role of "house." The director stands in the middle of the circle. If the director calls "Humans" all the people in the role of human have to move into a different trio, while the "Houses" remain in place. The director tries to take the place of one of the humans so that one person is left in the center. If the director calls "Houses" the players in the role of "House" have to find a new place to be a part of a House. There will be one person left in the middle, who calls "Humans" or "Houses" while game move forward. Then a third choice is added - the person in the middle can call "Tornado" and everyone has to find a new spot as either a house or human. 
Orchestrated Rant
  • Express personal feelings in a safe game
  • Follow cues from a leader and practice close listening
  • Take focus and give focus to others - essential relationship skills
Group breaks into teams of 4 or 5. Each person silently selects something that is a "pet peeve." Another player steps up to be the orchestra leader. When the orchestra leader points to someone, they begin a "rant" about their pet peeve, talking as loudly, softly, faster or more slowly, according to the orchestra leader's direction. When the director points to someone else, that person takes over with their rant. The direction can have 1 person rant at a time, have duets or have everyone speak at the same time. The exercises is a practice in taking focus when given the opportunity, and then being willing to let it go. The entire collaboration is a spontaneous expression of different peoples' ideas.
Cocktail Party

  • Practice close listening
  • Practice responding to others' cues
  • Explore giving and taking focus
Six players break into pairs. Another player becomes the director. Each pair stands together, a few feet away from the others. The idea is that each pair will have a conversation that stands alone, as if they are talking to one another at a party. A suggestion is taken from the group for a topic of conversation. The suggestion is just a a way to focus on an idea, a starting point. The emphasis is on naturalistic conversation that flows, and is organic. The couple will give focus to their partner by asking questions or responding to what their partner says with appropriate conversation and take focus as well. The director will point to a pair to talk - so this conversation is a kind of performance - and then point to another pair to take over, so the pairs are giving and taking focus as well by agreeing to follow the director's lead. Each pair will pick up their conversation where it left off when they are directed to continue but they can be influenced by what they hear other pairs talking about. The pairs will naturally be influenced by what others' say and may be inspired by them.


  • Practice taking focus;
  • Practice giving focus to others;
  • Practice allowing ourselves to be impacted by others;
  • Share spontaneously and practice allowing ideas, memories and associations to rise up and share them;
  • Freeze respectfully when someone else takes focus;

Everyone walks about the room not making eye contact with others. The director demonstrates by saying FREEZE - upon which everyone stops walking  - and sharing some personal reflection about the work done in the group that day or a memory that is triggered. When the sharing is over, the director says UNFREEZE and everyone walks about the room again until someone says FREEZE and shares something of their own. The game continues until everyone has grabbed focus at least once or twice. 

  • Explore a dynamic interaction between 2 people when one is clearly guilty of something;
  • Explore how an interaction that could turn into a conflict can be creatively redirected;
  • Explore the power of non-defensive responses to being in the wrong;
  • Experiment with being impacted upon by the emotions and cues of others;
2-person scenes are developed based on the director's structure that each interaction be centered on one person's mistake or bad behavior. The aggrieved person is allowed to respond any way that feels authentic, the guilty person is going to own what he/she did fully. A co-created moment is allowed to develop, with some coaching when appropriate. The high stakes are such that real conflict could develop, but instead we play with the possibilities that emerge when the guilty person completely owns their behavior, is emotionally committed and the aggrieved person allows him/herself to be impacted by the process taking place.

Suggestions for these scenes:
The guilty person smashed the car he/she was not supposed to be driving.
The guilty person is getting fired for his/her mistakes or poor performance.
The guilty person was dog-sitting and the dog ran away.
The guilty person cheated on an exam and is being expelled from school. 

Read more: Gamechanger: Using Improv Games For Therapeutic Goals Workshop Handout

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer who is President of Lifestage, Inc, a NYS-approved provider of Continuing Education for Social Workers (provider #0270). She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories told by people from all walks of life, ages, and backgrounds, told live, without notes. 


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