Games People (should) Play: What Improv taught me about Coaching

Magda Walczak  •  Dec 8, 2020  •  6 min read

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Games People (should) Play: What Improv taught me about Coaching

The following is a guest blog post by Shambhavi Singh. Scroll down to watch Shamvhavi’s webinar on using improv in coaching. 

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we stopped playing. Our leisure time is most likely spent with Netflix or our personal devices, than in the free play we loved as children. Taking time out for tag, does a lot more than take our mind off the problem. Adult play marks a time to put aside responsibilities and commitments and be social in an unstructured, creative way. Playing engages the creative side of our brain and quietens our omnipresent “inner critic/editor”. And anyone who’s wrestled with adult board games like Catan will attest to the fact that we learn better when it’s fun and the mood is light and relaxed. Something spreadsheets don’t quite inspire. 

The theory and practice of play for adults (from the likes of Peter Gray and Stuart Brown) is well documented as is the role of art and sport in social learning and psychological development. This informs a rather confident foray into the synergies between theatre, specifically improv and coaching. As coaches, awareness, communication and empathy are integral skills that cannot be emphasized enough. We know we need to possess these in spades. Good thing then, that improv applies a system of tangible games that help us inculcate and practice them all.  I use the word games (as opposed to lessons/ study) intentionally, to draw focus to the inherent benefits of gameplay that form the bedrock of improv. 

In this article, I felt it might be useful to share some thoughts on how improv seamlessly dovetails into coaching competencies and can be adapted for use in coaching conversations. To better ourselves as coaches and to unblock and move clients forward.

Improv (literally improvise) is a form of theatre, often comedy, in which everything performed is unplanned or unscripted: created on the spot, at the time, collaboratively by the performers. At its core, improv is not about being funny it’s about being honest in the moment, which is the result of a regular mindfulness practice. Based on the following 4 essential principles that govern the play, improv fine-tunes the ability to communicate ideas clearly, rapidly assess what others are communicating and respond in ways that support and expand on those ideas:

  • Listening – Listening and observing with your whole body
  • Accepting – Accepting the external stimulus as real, there are no mistakes and certainly no time to evaluate or judge merit 
  • Committing –  Trusting and following through with the first idea that strikes you
  • Expanding – spontaneously Expanding the idea or narrative bit by bit. Forward momentum, not cleverness, is key to keeping the action going. That means that “good enough” works just fine for improvisers—and for coaches

Improv sets up a safe, fun environment that invites participation without a predetermined agenda. The learning is experiential, autonomous and self managed. Areas of growth are intellectual, physical and emotional, making room for reflection and mindful decisions. The impact is felt in professional performance, self motivation and personal relationships. Furthermore, since improv frames our own success in collective terms, individual accountability enjoys the impetus of togetherness; which means it’s no longer a burdensome aspiration. 

In response to the uncertainty, alienation, and sanitised interaction that marks our current realities, improv-led coaching offers a playful approach to the ‘self’, encourages us to shed inhibitions, lowers our resistance to unfamiliar and challenging ideas, and allows us to choose our emotions and responses. As we reboot to navigate the next few years, often through digital screens, improv prepares us wonderfully to know nothing, and use everything we already have, to go forward. 

The section below tackles common obstacles in coaching and the improv skills that help to address these, along with some everyday tips/games that can be of support. 

NOTE for coaches: Explicitly call out some time to play games, possibly after facing resistance in normal conversation, or when you encounter a hurdle. Do seek the client’s consent. Unless the client has signed up for an improv class, they will be bewildered to play games in the midst of a coaching conversation. 

Coaching Issue  Improv skill that helps  Easy Improv-based tips to try 
Client responds to questions with “I don’t know” (drawing a blank) Imagination, keep the action going 1 prop, multiple uses. Interpret any common object in multiple ways through mime and gesture. 
Client is unable to articulate/ verbalise emotional state Self-awareness, self-empathy, spontaneous expression Talk non stop for 30 seconds about nothing, anything and everything. No thinking, no breaks. Write a letter to 9 year old and 16 year old selves and future self.
Client is pessimistic  Trust, empathy  Whenever you interact with someone for more than 5-seconds, note the emotion they are presenting.* 

Try this for 2 days with just people around you, delivery personnel, members of the house, etc.

Client is defensive  Reframing  Resistance games – I’m going to blame you for something, you accept the blame and expand the narrative by telling me how innovatively you failed. 
Client is unable to arrive at a specific goal Practising focus  Eat a meal alone, without any person or screen in sight. Notice the experience of food, taste, texture, smell, sight. See what you remember when the meal is over.  
Coach’s own emotions need to be managed Listening with curiosity without judgment – focusing outside yourself at the moment in front of you Mirroring: You and I mirror each other’s actions, gestures and words. No single person leads the other. Movements/ speech should be continuous and slow.  
Coach needs to coach the person, not the problem. Partner bonding which emphasises the person you are playing with not the comedy they create “Remember when we”…story building. Contribute a nugget of a story, the other participant has to pick up where it’s left off and add to it. 

My colleague Preetika Chawla and I recently presented a brief webinar for Coacharya based on some of the ideas and practices I’ve tried to introduce in this piece. If you’re interested check it out here and get in touch if you have any thoughts. 

*For example: At the grocery store, you note the cashier’s name tag, their greeting and inside your head you could say, ‘Ajit is worn-out or bored’.  Or at a restaurant, when the manager says “hi, how may I help you”; you might note that, ‘Priya is giggly or cheerful’. 

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Magda Walczak

Magda

Magda Walczak is CEO of Coacharya and author of Saylor's tale, a children's book. She's passionate about animal rights, women's equity and living sustainably.

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