6 Lessons Coaches Can Learn From Improv

Dec 15, 2019

Some years ago, I took a couple of courses at Second City, Chicago on Improv. For those who do not know, improv means improvisational theatre. It involves acting without scripts and without preparation. It is ad hoc and ad-lib. Second City is perhaps the mother lode of Improv. The fact that the building went up in flames on the day my second training ended causing Second City to have an unprecedented shut down for a few months had nothing to do with me. The following are the lessons I learned from improv that have helped me enhance my coaching skills.

1. Client Centricity

The entire improv process is based on client centricity. It is centered on empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence. The actors need to be totally committed to each other. They follow each other through subtle signals, often unexpressed, almost as if by mindreading. The only mistake one can do is to let the other down. This requires intense and empathetic listening.

2. Intense Listening & Observation

Observing what happens around us (listening included) needs to be intense and continuous. The response to this observation needs to be generative, anticipating what may happen next, and to create what can possibly happen next. It is all about a movement forward, growth and learning, in an expanding virtuous cycle of communication.

3. Open Communication

A golden rule of improv is never ever to say, “but.” This ensures ongoing communication. “Yes, but…” is a no-no. “Yes and,”’ is what is permitted. One practices this again. “Yes, but…” closes communication. “Yes and…” opens it up. “Yes and…” keeps the conversation going. In addition, being curious helps.

“Yes, but…” closes communication. “Yes and…” opens it up.

Ram Ramanathan
Founder, Coacharya

4. Curious Inquiry

The best improv practitioners are curious. They like to experiment to see what may happen when you try something different from what is expected. The journey is about the unknown, without an agenda and script.

5. Journeying Without Knowing

In improv there is no preparation and no script. Everything follows from what happened a moment earlier. Everything is a response, and this response as said before is other-centric. What happens later is not important, what happens now as a response to an earlier action is what matters. There is no time for inner dialogue, cognition, and the formulation of a response. The response is spontaneous and instant. It is non-judgmental. As a result, nothing is predictable.

6. Anything Is Possible

The beauty of Improv is that almost anything can happen, and often does happen. Anything that one can imagine, and often beyond what one can imagine. There are no boundaries other than not allowing the act to continue, using whatever resource is available. It is not so much about the skill of the practitioner, and more about the mindset of ‘anything goes’.

Anyone who learns improv can learn to cope with change. Improv is an excellent preparation to manage volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity since it is all of these. It is training in leadership and coaching leaders.

All these improv lessons have had a deep impact on my coaching style. These have helped me to travel without knowing, completely comfortable in any situation. I know that by merely continuing the conversation the way the client desires it should be possible to evoke awareness in the client. It is a curious non-judgmental journey into the unknown trustingly following the client, knowing whatever results would be for the best.

Ram Ramanathan, MCC
Ram Ramanathan, MCC


Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

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