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How improv holds the key to effective, empathic listening



I was talking to a friend on video last month and the conversation became challenging. She told me that she had recently been released and found out days later that her sister had been diagnosed with a severe case of COVID-19. In addition, she is a first time mom raising a 1 year old boy.

When she heard him howl from the other room, she sighed in defeat and said she would be right back after looking for him. I was grateful for the break because I didn’t know what to say.

I tried to think of something, anything I could offer to be helpful or to make things seem better than they appeared, but nothing came. I was afraid I would have to sign out and leave her in this hopeless state.

Then ̵

1; like an old friend just waiting to be of service – my improvisation training from 10 years ago suddenly began.

“Yes, I can imagine how scary and stressful all these developments were and will remain for you,” I told her. “And I know things may get worse before they get better, but I know I will always be there for you whenever you have fun, discuss things, or work on a plan of action. “

In short, I “yes, and-ed” them what acting improvisers do to aid their partner in a scene.

It was like a light going on. My friend opened up and began to speak in more detail about her feelings, which I listened carefully. Her problems were by no means resolved by the end of the conversation, but she seemed far less resigned than at the beginning.

This experience reminded me of the importance of not only listening but also exercising empathy – and using the tools in your toolbox to do so.

It can be difficult to know what to say when things seem so bleak, but that simple rule of improvisation, “yes and” has helped me develop useful empathy every time. That’s because the guidelines that will help you succeed in improvising are almost interchangeable with those that make you a good friend:

  1. Listen more than talk.
  2. Never fire or try to correct someone’s feelings or ideas.
  3. Always validate and build on what your partner brings you.

Empathetic listening is not the easiest skill to master, especially in today’s world where so many different things vie for our attention.

The “yes and” approach forces you to listen first and then respond to what you have just heard rather than just waiting to speak.

ClayDrinko PhD, author of Theater improvisation, awareness and insightand Play Your Way Sane says that this method enables people to adjust to their interlocutor and to coordinate their personal agenda.

“Yes, Anding really requires me to listen and be open to what they say,” he explains. “It also means that I have to be curious about them instead of preoccupying myself. I also can’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions. “

In order for an improvisation scene to work, you need to support your partner’s journey. The same goes for any relationship, especially when someone is going through a difficult time. However, because of our inconvenience with the conversation, we can often focus on talking about ourselves or offering blanket advice.

You may think that you are helpful in the moment, but comparing your situation with that of others negates their unique feelings and experiences. This is where another rule of improvisation comes into play – explore the scene in front of you and do it through your scene partner.

“If we follow the principles of improvisation, we have to fill in the scene that has already started,” says Drinko. “That means getting more details about what your friend just said, rather than changing the subject or offering advice. It’s about playing and exploring and not switching off and taking a neat bow to things. “

Anyone who has done or seen improvisation knows that humor is a big part of the draw. The versatility can also be helpful when it comes to supporting loved ones. If someone feels emotionally vulnerable, they can put up walls. Humor can help destroy them.

“Improv helps us to open up because we don’t argue or switch off,” says Drinko. “This helps build trust and makes people less afraid of making mistakes and taking risks.”

The Social Theater ™ organization uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tools to strengthen social skills. Some of these involve listening without judgment, accepting, and supporting what you or someone else is feeling.

“Humor makes it a lot easier to digest our challenges,” says Shawn Amador, therapist and founder of Social Theater ™. “Research has shown that humor is one of the most effective skills for managing stress and depression.”

But maybe one of the most important tools is being mindful or being present in the moment with the person you want to support.

Being mindful or present is the root of successful improvisation because it means that you are receptive to whatever happens next.

“Without mindfulness, improvisation would not be possible,” says Amador. The same goes for being really empathetic.

Dr. Stacia Casillo, director of the Ross Center in New York, says this is why improvisation training can improve social skills and help people be better systems of support.

“[Improv] requires a person to be in the moment, in the present, actively listening, not judgmental, and reacting to keep the scene flowing – all skills that can improve social interactions, ”notes Casillo.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of improvisation programs across the country specifically aimed at building social skills and emotional wellbeing. However, Casillo cautions against relying solely on improvisation training, especially for someone who suffers from severe social anxiety.

“You want to be careful when someone with significant anxiety enrolls in an improvisation class and expect them to help with their fear of social interaction,” explains Casillo. “Without additional therapeutic support, they may feel discouraged and are unlikely to seek additional professional help.”

When I listen to someone’s problems, I often feel the desire to offer solutions. This is usually not the way to help people feel better. I am not saying that you cannot make suggestions that may be useful. However, personal, emotional problems can only be solved by the person who is experiencing them.

Also, people tend not to appreciate someone trying to “fix” them. Take it from Drinko, who learned this lesson firsthand when he volunteered as a crisis advisor.

“Most of the callers didn’t want me to fix their problems. They wanted to feel seen, heard and valued, ”notes Drinko.

However, there are ways to tell if a loved one needs more help than a supportive friend can give.

Warning signs that more support is needed for a friend:

  • They tell you that they have thought about harming themselves.
  • They cope with hardship by engaging in high-risk behaviors such as excessive drug and alcohol use.
  • Your daily activities have changed: oversleeping, eating poorly, withdrawing from friends and family, and feeling unable to keep up with work.

And when your loved one just comes out and says they may need to see a therapist, answering “yes” to that decision is a good idea. You have probably noticed some of these signs yourself and are looking for support from someone you trust.

If you give your full consent and Tell them that you are there for them, no matter how things go, you can’t be a much better friend.

Ally Hirschlag is a writer and editor at weather.com. Her work has been featured in Cosmo, Allure, Audubon, Huffington Post, Mic, Teen Vogue, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere, among others. Follow her thoughts on Twitter and Facebook.




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