IMPROVISERS ASK – Comfort with Improvisation

Published by ShawnKinley on

woman in black long sleeve shirt sitting on brown wooden chair


How can I feel more comfortable using improvisation in my work?

Improvisation skills are superpowers for therapists, psychologists, and social workers.  I find it strange that improvisation classes aren’t formally prescribed for students in these fields.

Psychologists and Social Workers in my classes often send me questions months later with ideas that have been rattling around in their brains.  This question from a German clinical psychologist connected to similar ones asked many times before:

How can I, as a therapist, feel more comfortable with improvisation?

 Specifically, I know it is often better to be guided by events occurring “in the moment”  of the therapy session than to follow a concrete plan/fixed structure, but I often feel uncomfortable with it or find it difficult to go into a consultation without much preparation. You know what I mean?   – Hanna

I think I know what you mean.

It’s not a question of what to do with improvisation or how to use it with patients. The question is how to feel more comfortable using it.  

Interestingly, this is a common issue on and off the stage.

You said that you feel “uncomfortable going into the work without much preparation.”

I might ask you where you got the idea that you feel you need to drop your preparation in order to improvise?

Improvising as part of interaction with your patients VERSUS pre-planning structures are not ideas in conflict with each other. 

You can plan a session and within that plan you can travel off the path knowing there a safe place to return, or you can continue going further down uncharted territory. You create the map for safety. You choose to use it or not. 

Stay with the comfort of your planning. Plan twice as much if that would make you feel better.  Your issue is most likely about giving up control, not planning.  

Can you let go of that beautiful plan that has lost its value when you partner has shown you a different path? Can you give up control for your own safety in favour of their needs?

This is a truth for all areas of life, work, and performance.

There’s an odd belief by some people that ALL PLANNING has to be thrown out of the window for “good” improvisation to occur.

  I   think it’s not about the planning. It’s about fear and reluctance to move away from plans when better realities present themselves.

Stage improvisers have the same problem when they are in the middle of a scene. They become so blinded by their “GREAT” idea that they can’t see the better idea that has sprung to life right before them. It’s so much easier to hang onto that safe ‘planned’ idea than to give it up. 

Our frightened brain fears that we won’t possibly be able to come up with something better than the ideas that we have right now and so we shove aside all other possibilities as they appear.

When a performer walks on stage there are three kinds of planning that occur. These reflect our daily behaviour:

  • 1) Skills and training – This type of ongoing planning include things we have been taught. We know these plans as lessons.
  • Improvisers are taught to say “YES and…” Actors have learned their lines. Psychologists have learned behaviour is mostly nurture, not nature at university. These ingrained plans are helpful tips but difficult to let go of when exceptional moments call for another option.
  • 2) Explicit story – The story we are acting on at the front of our thoughts: Our “GOOD” ideas we’ve consciously planned.
    The actor has prepared the story of Romeo and Juliet.  The Improviser specifically wants to do a love story even before they have even seen their partner. The psychologist has formulated the idea that the patient will be affected by Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love and has a process that they will act upon for the betterment of their client. 
  • These plans may have formed months ago or microseconds ago. In improvisation, they can propel us forward or blind us to better moments that rise up. CAUTION!
  • 3) Implicit story – This is planning based on the experiences of your life and what’s affecting you in THIS moment. We often don’t know we are acting on these stories.
  • The improviser feels compelled to treat their partner in this moment like a parent, alien, animal, etc. (because it was on their mind from a conversation earlier).  The Actor reacts more strongly in this moment than in previous rehearsals because they were moved to. (the fight they had earlier has extra endorphins bubbling in their system which is affecting them) The psychologist intuitively asks what might seem like an unrelated question but is responding to a movement or subtle shift in the clients body position.
  • At its best, these intuitive, unseen plans, are perceptive reactions we have to truths that our subconscious catches before or intellect can think about. At their worst, our defense mechanisms have fired up to protect our egos and we defend the choice suggesting that our intuition made the choice. In reality, your self-protective plan is reacting unreasonably.

Each of these story modes can be useful or  they can be damaging. 

Over plan and you will waste your time because the story does not rely just on you. Under plan (No training, no forethought, never reading or interacting with others) and you might act chaotically and far outside the reality that we share.

Work the side of your brain that allows your “planned” process to  be tossed aside when the opportunity for better choices comes up.

If you won’t let your plans go because of fear, then PLAN to improvise for a safe period of time in the usual process with your patients.  You could also make it a formal improvisation moment where you introduce the possibilities of improvisation to the patient (which makes it a little safer because you controlled the moment) or it could be a secret pan where you improvise without telling the patient. 

At any time, you can jump the ship of uncertainty and come back to that safety map of your planning.

It’s YOUR COMFORT that’s in question.  Do some self-therapy and ask:

  • 1) What creates the discomfort?
  • 2) Is the reason valid?
  • 3) How can you work through it? (possibly using a gradual technique where you introduce improvised moments into your work in doses that don’t throw you off too much).


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