Can improv help you deal with change?


In the last five months, I've moved apartments twice in an experiment to save money. It's been a lot of change and hasn't amounted to a great saving, but in truth, it hasn't bothered me that much. I trust my life experience...and my improv brain.

You're reading this in the future, right now for me it's mid-February 2020. As I move my life in boxes from one location to another I feel a sense of vulnerability. A raised awareness of my environment and the big stuff over which I have no control right now. From flooding in the UK, to political shifts, climate change and a possible pandemic to counter. It has all resonated a little louder as the safe space I call home is in flux. Fortunately, I know my improvisation training. The ability to stay focused in the moment. Dealing with new things as they present themselves, not getting caught in trying to plan for what might happen as I move the boxes. The improvisers mantra is Yes And, not what if - and improv is a great skill for dealing with change.

Yes And, not what if.

Dealing with change is inevitable. When life presents a new challenge and changes our status quo in ways we don't like, it's natural to shy away from or try to control it. In my day to day work, I strive to implement the tenets of improv to the best of my ability to be my best self.

  • Yes, and. Accept and build.
  • Being present and focussed.
  • Actively listening to what is being said during conversations.
  • Slowing down to process information effectively.
  • Make clear decisions based on what I now understand.

It's easy to get caught up in the 'what if' loop. I used to do this a lot. What if a client doesn't pay? Why did I get passed over for a promotion? How will I cope if a close relative falls ill? There are millions of possible circumstances I could suddenly find myself presented with. What can sound like a negative voice in my head is actually my brain trying to keep me safe. To stop me from taking risks that might put me in danger or out of my comfort zone.

The edge of that comfort zone is where we do our best learning, when we're uncomfortable enough that our awareness becomes heightened. It's common in high stakes situations, like a job interview or buying a new car- or moving house.

A safe space to fail

One of the advantages of improvised learning, where games are played to improve listening skills, memory or communication is that they provide us with a safe space to fail, and a playground for experimentation. Misunderstanding the rules, or simply getting something wrong while playing a game is a small failure without no serious real-world consequences.

Learning how to fail small in improv workshops is positivity encouraged. A student I taught once called it "a healthy level of f&*k it". Meaning that it's not about if you fail, but rather the attitude you adopt to deal with the recovery.

Doing one improv workshop is no quick fix, unfortunately. Improv is skill-based. Working a muscle, not using a tool, think of it more like a couch to five-kilometre run than a can opener. Similar to the process of working up to a 5k, it starts with a little exercise every day. Putting your shoes on at the front door one day, jogging down the street the next and eventually laps of the park.
Regularly working the creative muscles strengthens them and builds resilience. Neurons in the brain begin to fire off down different pathways, that lead to less obvious, more creative thinking.

You don't need to be a performer or even an extrovert to begin building your mental muscles.

Professional improvisers and stand up comedians use these brain muscles all the time on stage, to make fast, smart, decisions that influence and impress those around them. A joke is a problem looking for an original solution, and a good punchline changes the way you see the subject matter.

The ability to think fast spontaneously and robustly can get us out of the mud of the negative 'what if'. You don't need to be a performer or even an extrovert to begin building your mental muscles. Moving house twice in five months, the stress of moving didn't bother me too much, because the mental heavy lifting was well in hand. That's why I believe improv is a valuable way to help us when dealing with change.

John Cooper
Comedian & Improv coach
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