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Cultivate Creative Thinking Skills Through Applied Improvisation

Lifestage was proud to host Guy Nelson, author of Creative Thinking, Creative Play: Using Improvisational Games To Transform People, Classrooms and Organizations, an improviser with
Guy Nelson
Unexpected Productions , musician and trainer as well as NPR journalist with WUOW in Seattle, as a guest facilitator on Friday May 11. He described improvisation as a "universal lubricant" applicable to every area of learning and growth. In this gathering of mental health and education professionals. the discussion focused on how the thinking skills learned through improvisation apply to the therapeutic and learning process. Here is a breakdown of the games and exercises Guy taught in this workshop. 

     An accomplished musician, Guy demonstrated the improvisation principle of "yes...and" and warmed up the group with a nonverbal dance exercise. Playing the guitar and singing an improvised piece, he provided the music for the exercise. Group members stood in a circle. One at a time, each became the dance captain, by standing in the center and moving to the music. The other group members imitated the movement of the dance captain. After 30 seconds or so, the dance captain danced over to another group member and invited them to take over. 
Y   This nonverbal, movement-based warm-up captures the essence of creative thinking, which is less linear and intellectual, more responsive to rhythms, internal impulses and exploration. In addition, this experience was social-emotional, in that group members were in continuous relationship to one another, expressing agreement and acceptance of what the dance captain led them to do, and willingly handing off the leadership. The flow of interaction, guided by music and movement, is an ideal way to create a sense of connection and cohesion among people by co-creating a shared social-emotional experience. 
    What makes improvisation possible is the basic agreement to say "yes" to other peoples' ideas. It is a simple concept that can be challenging to put into action. The more anxious and self-protective we feel, the more likely we are to retreat from what is new or unpredictable. This game is a simple way to examine the difference between a purposeful rejection and an acceptance of others' ideas. Players sit in a circle. Player 1 suggests an activity to the person sitting to his/her right, something like "Let's have a picnic" and Player 2 responds with a rebuttal, e.g. "No, because it is going to rain soon." Each player makes a suggestion of something 2 people can do together, and the next person responds with "No because" giving a reason this will not work. 
R   In round 2 the opposite happens. Each player suggests something 2 people can do together - "let's take a drive to Montauk" - and the next person says "yes" with an "and" which either justifies why that's a great idea or adds to what it can be, e.g. "yes because its beautiful in Montauk and we need to have some fun." Anything the person offers must be yet with a "yes" and something more. 
     "Yes...and" is the "secret sauce" that moves our more structured, habitual thinking process into the realm of embracing possibilities, which is the core of creative thinking. Improvisation is an interactive process that can only happen when the players support and explore one anothers' ideas without judgment. It takes a great deal of practice to overcome our natural tendency to analyze ideas before saying "yes to them, and exercises like these warm up the psychological "muscles" we need to move beyond the automatic, self-protective habits of mind. 
     Creative thinking, because it is outside the conventional, predictable and socially "approved," comes with an element of emotional risk. Improv games are ideal for increasing the sense of psychological safety in a group or classroom, an essential step for enhancing not only creative thinking but productivity in general. According to researchers Paul Hammerness, MD and Margaret Moore, groups and teams that take the time and effort to connect with one another in fun, positive ways are galvanizing everyone's capacity to focus, think with clarity and solve problems. "Start meetings on positive topics and some humor," they write in "Train Your Brain To Focus" in Harvard Business Review. "The positive emotions this generates can improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving." 
     Step 1. Group members find a partner, and together the 2 partners create a secret handshake. It can be as simple or complex as the pair want it to be, but most importantly it will be unique to them. 
     Step 2. Find a new partner. Each partner makes a "fun face." Partners practice making the "fun face" to one another.
    Step 3. Find another new partner. Talk for a minute or so, and then each partner comes up with a nickname for other person. The nickname must be approved by the partner, something he/she likes and enjoys.
    Step 4. Find another new partner. Tell this partner some secret about yourself, anything that is ok to share in a setting like this. It can as simple as "I love to binge watch Home Shopping." Each partner affirms the other by saying "your secret is safe with me."
    Step 5. The group walks about the entire space. When encountering the person with whom we created the secret handshake, we do the secret handshake. When encountering the "fun face" partner, they make the faces to one another, and the same with all the other partners. 
     This simple exercise is a way to connect stranger and produce a shared creative experience that has elements of surprise and novelty combined with increasing the sense of safety that is the foundation of positive social-emotional experiences conducive to creativity.

   The "yes...and" principle means accepting the ideas of others and letting go of our own for the sake of a group collaboration, and creative thinking in general is more likely when we are able to let go of our own outdated ideas. This game is a very structured way to shift focus from self-consciousness and worry about how we are coming across to making simple contributions that must build on what others have already created, or begin a new idea with one simple word. This strengthens the capacity to let go of our tendency or need to control or predict what happens in an interaction, and is a way to practice contributing to a creative process while letting go of the self-judgment we all have as a reflexive form of self-protection. The objective of this game is to create complete ideas, or sentences, by having each group member contribute one word at a time. When a string of words feels complete as a coherent sentence, the next person says "period" or pauses as the group takes in and joins in the nonverbal "sense" that a sentence or idea is complete. 
     This game can be expanded into creative "Words Of Advice" or "Proverbs." With these, the conclusion of the thought is punctuated by the group saying "yes yes yes yes" after which a new proverb or piece of advice is begun.
     Another expansion of the game is tell jokes one word at a time. These can follow a joke format, e.g. "why did the chicken cross the road" type jokes, or "knock knock" jokes which use the familiar structure in one word at a time fashion, followed by the response invented one word at a time. One objective with this game is to let go of needing to make rational sense and just play with what is given, let go of the desire to be "jokey" or clever and simply add one word in turn, and with this letting go to experience a shift in consciousness to the group mind. It is a paradoxical truth that the group consciousness produced by playing improv games is a reliable source of individual creativity, because it is a shift into a positive psychological space and flow. 
     This game takes the one-word-at-a-time listening, connecting and flow practices into interpersonal, dynamic interaction. Players pair up and each pair finds another pair who sit facing each other. One pair becomes one person, the other pair becomes the other person, and a situation is assigned to them by the director, e.g. one pair is a person returning an item to the store, the other pair is the store manager receiving the return. Each pair must speak as one, which means looking at one another, slowing down to connect to what the other person is signaling he/she is saying, and trying to express a sentence at the same time without planning it. A conversation takes place between these 2-headed persons. 
     This warm-up is ideal for energizing a group at any point during the process, getting out of a head-space after a debrief or simply getting into the "state of play" that is central to improvisation and creative thinking. The group stands in a circle. Player 1 raises his/her hands over head, palms together and then lowers and aims them at another player, saying "whap." The receiving player immediately raises his/her hands overhead in the same way while the 2 players on either side make a slicing "whap" at him/her, as if a lumberjack is cutting down a tree. Play continues in this way. The idea is to stay alert to receiving and responding without any warning, which is physical in expression and a mental practice in simply saying "yes" without overthinking, to respond within a structure is very helpful to getting out of any kind of over-analysis and simply let go. The goal of the play is to pass the sound and movement rapidly and with a rhythmic precision.


     This exercise is a true experience of collaboration in a creative endeavor to which no one involved can have an agenda because the next step of the process is unknown to everyone. Each person's contribution is unique and useful, leading up to the creative, improvised conclusion.
     Players divide into groups of 4. A large poster-size sheet of paper is attached to a wall or easel, one for each group and different colored markers are given to the group. A line is drawn across the page about 3/4 of the way down, leaving a blank space at the very bottom. A suggestion is taken from the group or given by the direction. Player 1 takes a marker and draws something inspired by the suggestion, for about 30 seconds or so. Player 2 then adds to the drawing, then player 3 and then player 4. Then Player 1 returns to the paper and, inspired by what has been collectively created by the team, writes the first line of a haiku. A haiku is a poem that consists of exactly 3 lines. Line 1 has 5 syllables, line 2 has 7 syllables, line 3 has 5 syllables. Player 2 writes the 2nd line of the haiku, building on the first line. Player 3 writes the 3rd line. After all the pictures have haikus written for them, player 4 of a team joins up with another player 4 to look at one of the other team's pictures. Together these 2 become art critics who are explaining this work of art to the world. These art critics are very impressed by the work and the players improvise their collaborated analysis of this piece. 
     Six Creative Thinking Skills, excerpted from Guy Nelson's book:

    Say “yes…and” – promotes creative thinking by opening to a mindset that considers and is open to building on a range of ideas. The “yes” is an acceptance of the reality presented by another person or a situation. The “and” is what we offer that adds to it. In relationships, “yes” is the acknowledgement that others have been seen and heard, which is the first step in effective communication. The “and” is our opportunity to respond to and shape an interaction. Creative thinking expands through this willingness to take in what our more rational, structured thinking might automatically reject.
2.    Notice more (use everything) – means observe and focus awareness on what is happening around us using all our senses. Close listening and attunement to details increases empathy and connection in relationships, which is essential when we lead a learning and change process. Creative thinking blossoms in a positive social-emotional atmosphere, and the ability to connect ideas in unusual ways grows through this skill.
3.    Explore Without Judgment – is an essential skill for navigating new information and emotional territory which is at the heart of any change and learning process, which is strengthened through creative experiences. Reducing judgment increases emotional safety, which is important for creative exploration to occur in improvisation or in real life interactions. The ability to recognize our biases, fears and other aspects of our inner life can change the way we see the world.
4.    Be bold. Live without fear – is a skill for overcoming the dread and paralysis that can come with change and uncertainty and is learned through embracing the concept of play. In improvisation, the focus is on “can and do” instead of “can’t and don’t.” When we feel ourselves crossing an internal barrier to something to which we have been closed off, the decision to be bold is an empowering one and it becomes more available with practice.
5.    Find success in failure – is a thinking skill that is both rooted in the creative process and reinforced by it. In the improvisation process, everything is an experiment and we willingly surrender some degree of control. This psychological “muscle” also fosters a healthy resilience to the stresses of loss and change, and replaces the mental habits that drive perfectionism.
6.    Co-create – is a concept that makes everyone involved a stakeholder in what develops. Improvisers engage the audience by taking suggestions and engage with one another to discover something that can only happen through this kind of open-ended interaction. In therapy, a classroom or an organization, this skill means that everyone involved is invested in both process and outcome.

      Lifestage, Inc provides Applied Improvisation training for a wide variety of personal and professional development goals, including social-emotional learning, Emotional Intelligence, Growth Mindset, Stress-Resilience, as well as workshops to develop and craft stories for reframing personal narratives, for communicating important ideas in professional settings or to the public, as well as for performance. Complete information is available at


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