Tapping The Gifts Wrapped In Uncertainty Through Applied Improvisation

judetrederwolff
5 min readSep 18, 2023

Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit.” Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Until recently, most of the research on certainty and persuasion had emphasized that building people’s certainty is a great way to get them to take action. We now know that while it is true that certainty can prompt people to act, it is often uncertainty that prompts people to think.” “The Upside Of Uncertainty” Scientific American

Uncertainty is baked into change and growth, a necessary dimension when navigating the new, unknown and untried that can be so stress-inducing that we might retreat from an important transition just to avoid it. Research shows that gaining skills that expand the capacity to tolerate uncertainty — to live with the tensions of the in-between for longer periods of time and even have fun with them — is at the heart of a successful change process. Whether creating our personal lives or maximizing opportunities at work, the capacity to play within the tensions of what is and what is emerging is lead to game-changing transformation and innovation.

Improv is an art form and practice that not only increases our tolerance for uncertainty, it mines the benefits of it. Within the messy unknown is the space to generate new ideas, play new roles, and explore untried behaviors without being attached to any of them. We can build on what emerges, develop interesting new themes. We can say “yes” to a discovery without knowing where it may lead.

Studies show that the balance of risk and reward in a positive, collaborative group cultivate skills that become available in the face of real-life stresses. Risk is inherent to the improv experience, and the reward is part of every level, from foundational skill development to advanced forms. An example of how this works is demonstrated in this exercise recently used in an applied improv group of social workers with no prior improv training:

A made-up situation is assigned to the entire group, e.g. "you have all just been to a motivational seminar and in different pairs you will dialogue about it.” Each pair will discuss the seminar from a different perspective that is also assigned by the trainer (high degree of structure) with this instruction given out right before they go up (uncertainty). The exercise provides enough structure and familiarity for participants to find their footing right from the start, but also enough freedom to play with the scenario, to craft a relationship and by listening and responding to each other. The only other requirement is that they begin each new line in the dialogue by saying “yes” and do their best to add to their partners’ idea.
First pair is assigned: The seminar was brilliant and mind-blowing
Player 1: Wow. This speaker changed my whole perspective on what it means to be human!
Player 2: Yes! I feel the shift happening inside me right now!
Player 1: Yes, now I see all my life experiences in a completely new light.
Player 2: Yes, I see humanity’s struggles in a whole new light.

And so on…the players build and heighten this idea to whatever outsized enthusiasm they care to create.

Second pair is assigned: The seminar was incomprehensible
Player 1: Wow. I do not know what that was supposed to be about…
Player 2: Yes, I feel so confused my brain hurts.
Player 1: Yes, I feel so off-balance. I’m still trying to makes sense out of the BLT sandwich as a metaphor for social change.
Player 2: Yes, and his rant about whole grain bread being a Communist plot was out of left field.

And so on…
After a few different takes (the seminar was tedious/boring, or had secret messages baked into it, or very motivating) practice dropping the word “yes” to make the dialogues a little more like the way people actually speak, but very much keep the spirit of “yes” in the exchange:

The pair is assigned: The seminar was horrifying
Player 1: The images that guy used to make his points were so upsetting.
Player 2: I’m going to up all night now.
Player 1: Its like he thought he had to scare us to get us to do the right thing.
Player 2: That story about his accident was gut-wrenching so it just might work.

This exercise provides enough structure to make it manageable, but offers room for an unpredictable conversation. In a therapy or training group, the different “takes” on an imagined situation can be a template for the reality that people can have different perceptions of the same lived experience. And there are thinking and relationship skills cultivated by the exercise that make uncertainty more manageable:
Spontaneous communication encouraged by the emphasis on support of what a partner says, which helps to shift out of self-protective mode;
Mental agility;
Creative expansion through saying “yes” and exploring what comes next without planning or predicting;

Uncertainty tolerance is a shift in consciousness.

Shift from looking for ways to stay in control to looking for ways to contribute to an unfolding creative process;
Shift from familiar self-protective defenses to playful, collaborative support of others;
Shift from a need to know what will happen next to exploring the needs of the group in any given moment.

The rewards of discomfort in an improv exercise are sometimes subtle — an unexpected idea rising up, a wave of good feeling from a surprising sense of flow with a partner — and sometimes wild and hilarious. A novel development in the interaction or a layer of fun no one saw coming can electrify a group. Something is discovered. Repeated exposure to this kind of creative group process is a way to practice new behaviors and thinking that can redirect the fear and anxiety that can get in the way of meaningful change.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Mental Health looked at improvisation exercises as a therapeutic intervention and found significant improvement in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and reduction of perfectionism. Neuroscience tells us that mental states become neural traits. Day after day, our mind is building our brain — what scientists call “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” — a hot area of research these days.” according to Brain Rules by molecular biologist John Medina. He explains that “when the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads ‘remember this.”

Applying improv skills and principles to the challenges of changing our mind, behavior and relationships gradually cultivates neural traits that become available in real-life scenarios. Making things up together, it turns out, is an effective way to skills for coping with reality.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP. CPAI is a trainer/consultant with Lifestage, Inc

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judetrederwolff

LCSW, CGP, CPAI, writer/performer, storyteller, storytelling coach. Improviser on team AURA at Magnet Theater in NYC. Storytelling coach for individuals & orgs