Cognitive Shifts, Creativity, and Connection: 10 Benefits Of Improv

As professional listeners to every variety of problem, psychotherapists take in more information about human foibles, flaws and failures than anyone, except police and possibly priests in the days when confession was still a thing. The therapist’s charge is to absorb difficult truths without bias or assumptions, to work toward agreed-upon goals with full knowledge that new information could redirect them without notice. Together, therapist and client create a real-time interactive partnership that exists in a creative space where something new and unfamiliar can develop and grow. The rules and agreements that hold the space are similar to what makes improvisation possible — the unique heightened human connection that gains us entrance into the parts of a person’s consciousness that are most easily threatened. There is no better preparation for both empathizing with and navigating the twists and turns of another person’s most private, protected self than improvisation, which can only occur through that a distinctive combination of emotional connection and creative risk.

Improv is the fast-track to understanding and tapping into creative energy in ways that are immediately transferable to real-life stresses and situations. The capacity to improvise is linked to essential cognitive-emotional tools in our psychological toolbox. To make something useful out of an existing thing or circumstance is creative in exactly the same way that an artist has the ability to mold clay into a sculpture or a musician makes music by rearranging sounds and rhythm. It is the fuel for our capacity to learn but maybe even more importantly to relearn, to form new habits of mind in response to change. The psychological “muscles” we need to improvise — heightened attention to what partners say and do, close listening, willingness to explore ideas, and emotional agility — are powerfully strengthened through improv games and exercises. Psychotherapy turns on this same element of heightened awareness of and response to what others say or do.

Relationships are a kind of improvisation. We co-create a relationship one interaction at a time. We cannot imagine ahead of time what will come of it. We have to improvise our way through and discover it. And through learning to manage uncertainty and practice staying in the creative, improvisational mind set in the face of emotional stress, we can consider changes that might be beneficial, even if at one time they were beyond our understanding of what is possible.

Here’s why:

  1. Improv strengthens the capacity for emotional risk. Because all human interaction involves some degree of risk, we tend to try to script, prepare and edit ourselves both to protect against pain and promote success. The psychotherapy relationship has clearly defined roles and goals, but within that frame lies rich creative potential for thinking new thoughts and discovery of different perspectives on problems. That involves risk. But within a structure that not only allows for, but invites, mistakes. The psychotherapy space is a place to experiment with new ways of thinking and relating, and how those new ideas are playing out in day to day life. Improvisation heightens our awareness of what its like to risk, to use mistakes and make the most out of what they reveal, and allow an interaction to go to unexpected places.
  2. Therapy involves mutual agreements within which we must let go agendas — the building blocks of improvisation. There is immediacy and energy to the improvised encounter. Everyone contributes, no one is really in control. And the trust necessary for true collaboration to occur grows out of the improviser’s mandate to make the other person look good. Good skills to learn in therapy, and an improvising therapist models them.
“A group of individuals who act, agree, and share together create strength and release knowledge surpassing the contribution of any single member. This includes the teacher and group leader,” improvisation pioneer Viola Spolin.

3. Through improv training we knowingly and consciously engage with others — such as when playing a game together — without knowing how it is going to turn out. Psychotherapy can have the same degree of uncertainty and urgency. This uncertainty is uncomfortable, but the fact that we enter into this it together helps with the discomfort, and provides the space to figure out how we handle the same anxieties on the stage of life. This uncertainty is a natural part of the change process, and the question is what we will choose when we are thrown into it. Will we choose the comfortable and familiar patterns already formed or that have been chosen for us, or will we take a step toward shaping our reality in a new and creative direction?

4. An idea that is developing through improvised interaction requires both emotional commitment and a willingness to let go of any agendas about the direction the action should take, a mind and skill set that is essential for psychotherapists. Improvisation reminds us that practicing this kind of receptiveness — the “yes…and” applied in real life— keeps us attuned to a client’s degree of readiness to change and to our own biases.

5. Creativity is the energy of change. It is like the “push” inside a seed, an unseen force that turns acorns into oaks and toddlers into teenagers. Understanding change as a creative process provides us with an important perspective on how to channel its naturally-occurring tensions upon which the transformative power of psychotherapy turns.

6. Applied Improvisation provides tools for engaging with people in playful ways that have a serious, life-changing purpose. Through play, we connect with a natural but often forgotten capacity to respond to stress and uncertainty with a sense of fun and excitement. The beginner’s mind — experimentation, trying different approaches, learning about what works and building on it — is open to possibility. One definition of improvisation — which is play with a creative purpose — is “the conception of action as it unfolds, drawing on available affective, social and material resources,” from a paper titled Improvisation and Learning: Soulmates or Just Friends? The conception of what is possible becomes available through the creative process of using what we have available.

Improvisation is intuition guiding action in a spontaneous way” Ivey School of Business professor and researcher Mary Crossan

7. Improvisation training can galvanize the inherent — but often neglected and denied — creative strength to experiment with new parts of self and feel our inherent vulnerability. Because improvisation is the practice of entering a new experience, making choices that shape it and responding to others’ choices over which we have no control, it strengthens the “muscles” we need to have in place when the unexpected and unpredictable difficulties of life sweep us into change we did not see coming.

8. Improvisation is driven by the creative impulse and by relationship to others that plays out in real time in unrehearsed and — to the extent we are able — unedited interactions. By taking some degree of emotional risk that pushes us far enough into uncertainty to discover otherwise hidden psychological strengths but not so far that we shut down, we cultivate the resilience we need to not only get through tough times but to make something useful out of the experience.

9. If the world were populated by improvisers, people would have the skills to work together on problems and be effective, even if they do not know one another well. Or at all. The willingness to connect through creative agreements cultivates close listening without imposing our own agendas or prejudice. And when operating at the top of our intelligence, improvisation is an opportunity to bring every bit of our inner wisdom and knowledge into the worlds we create with others.

10. Improvisers have a high vision of what is possible for humanity and are detemined to bring the improviser’s skills and mind set to the effort to realize that vision and reach as many people as they can. And start by meeting these people exactly where they are. This is what therapists aspire to and an ideal we try to realize through the work. And when improv training is involved, the work can be play. And that changes everything.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a trainer/consultant, and writer/performer. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS storytelling show, which features true stories — with a twist. Follow her on Twitter