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How improv has helped my coaching and teaching

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Although I’ve been teaching improv a lot recently, I’ve been a therapist, coach and teacher much longer. Here are four ways improv has helped my coaching and teaching.

Healing Laughter

Laughter can be healing. It helps us loosen up around a problem. It gives us space. When clients are stuck, it’s often because they’ve got tangled up around their problem. When they begin to laugh about it and the madness of being human, I know they’re beginning to get free of its grip.

It’s like undoing a knot. If we pull too hard, we just make the knot tighter. Instead, often we need to gradually loosen it. Then we can steadily unpick it.

Improv has helped me find it easier to laugh and help other people to laugh.
If you’re uncomfortable with laughter, my friend Julia Johannsen does a lot of great work around this in English and German. You might also enjoy the Laughology documentary on YouTube.

Adapting to the moment – What was that?

Way back when I first began therapy and coaching twenty years ago, I had some favourite processes I would run almost all the time. Nothing inherently wrong with that. If they’re useful, use them. But looking back, I see there were times when I was pushing on with a process without fully responding to the client.

Listening is the willingness to be changed. This means letting go of what you thought would happen to engage in what is happening. This is what we practice in improv.

The most powerful coaching sessions are often ones in which I’ve noticed something and explored it rather than following where I expected to go.

In practical terms, it might be as simple as noticing a reaction in the client’s embodiment and asking, “What was that?” or “What’s going on for you right now?”  A group setting will likely have more of a structure.  But there are usually plenty of opportunities for demonstrations or using an incident that happened in the room as an example of the skill we’re practising.

You Have Everything You Need in the First 60 Seconds

In open improv scenes, we often say “You have everything you need in the first 60 seconds.” There’s no need to invent anything more. It’s already there if you pay attention. The way you and your partner moved. How you relate to each other. The tones of voice. What’s implied by any words. Pay attention and trust that it’s there.

Coaching sessions are often the same. People’s patterns show up even in tiny things. How you do one thing is how you do everything.

I normally have a couple of minutes chat with a client as they arrive – in person or online – to help us both settle down with each other.

I used to more or less ignore those moments before we started “properly.” 

Improv has helped me notice much more often how what happens in that bit of small talk demonstrates a client’s unconscious pattern that becomes relevant later.  

Being OK with “Unknown Unknowns”

Your client (and all of us!) has

  • Things they’re aware that they know how to do (conscious resources)
  • Things they’re aware that they don’t know how to do (problems)

They also have

  • Things they’re not aware they know (hidden resources)
  • And things they’re not aware they don’t know how to do (blind spots)

I was trained as a solution-focused therapist so, like in coaching, I normally ask a client what they want from the session. I still do this. And I think it’s really useful.

But the answer you get to this question will be from that second group: The things the client is aware that they are struggling with. We can help with that.

But they also have hidden resources and blind spots. Things they’re not aware they have as resources or blocks.  Your client can’t bring them up at the beginning of a session because they’re not aware of them.

I still love the solution-focused frame.  That’s my usual starting point. But learning to be more comfortable with exploring the unknown through improv has helped me be more willing to help a client explore what they (and I) don’t know.

On a practical level, I might flag this up when it happens in the session: “You came asking for X but it now seems like this [discovered thing] might be more important to you. Would you like to continue exploring this [discovered thing]?” Usually the “discovered thing” is more important. But they’d couldn’t ask for it at the start because they weren’t aware of it.  Also, the “discovered thing” usually relates to the original issue in some way anyway.

Music I’m listening to

I’ve been enjoying listening Walk Off the Earth for their talent and joyful exuberance.  Covers of CrazyWhat’s Love Got to Do with It?Don’t CryHappy, their own Long Way Home and many more…. 

Books I’m reading

  • One Blade of Grass, Henry Shukman – Zen teacher Henry Shukman’s memoir of his path through Zen practice. It’s autobiography not guidance.  Beautifully written. And very helpful to read someone’s internal experience of stages of Zen practice.
  • A Subversive’s Guide to Improv, David Razowsky. I’m about half way through.  So far it’s more his life story than improv skills, although I hear they come up later in the book.
  • The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist. OMG I can’t believe I’m still reading this!  It is brilliant and has already changed the way I see things. But I find it quite hard to read and it’s very long!  I wrote a short summary of the first part in a previous newsletter here.

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