Employing improvisational role play to train the limbic system to enhance emotionally intelligent awareness and behavior.

Author:Weis, William L.


In our work teaching emotional intelligence to MBA students, we make extensive use of the 60-year-old T-Group (or "training group") format which involves repetitive work sessions, each 8 to 10 minutes long, where participants sit in a tight circle and are coached to remain "in the present" with their colleagues. The T-Group is one of the few approaches that we know of to directly engage and train the limbic system to modify in-the-moment responses to interactive stimuli. As we have written elsewhere (Weis & Arnesen, 2007; Weis, Arnesen, & Hanson, 2009; Weis & Hanson, 2008), the T-Group is a highly frustrating process on first encounter, as participants resist the counter-cultural and often counter-instinctive mandate to address their fellow participants with their clear and authentic truths, while remaining steadfastly in the present moment. T-Group leader interventions and interruptions often spark anger, resentment, hostility and opt-out by participants who find the format more challenging than they are comfortable with. With ample time available, T-Group participants generally adapt to the format and replace their initial resistance with acceptance and even enthusiasm, as they eventually appreciate the value of this challenging exercise. However, the key variable here is "ample time"--and in an MBA course time is limited and too often the gestation period for the acceptance and enthusiasm phase comes at the end of our course experience. Is there a way to front-end that "buy-in" and enthusiasm with a methodology that mixes the initial frustration and challenge with fun and levity? We believe our initial experimentation with role play and improvisational theater technique offers promise for such a new and less-threatening approach to T-Group work.


Have you ever attended an "improv night" or "theater sports" competition? Were you surprised at how adeptly the improvisational actors spontaneously created a coherent, entertaining play, often building merely upon a word or phrase tossed to them from the audience?

Skillful improvisation teams are keenly connected to "the present" when they are at their finest, and are able to weave spontaneous wit and imagination in ways that seem almost pre-scripted. How do they do it? Obviously they develop a vibrant repartee from working closely with each other over time--and they each begin with a flair for spontaneity and imaginative extroversion. But they also adhere to a set of fundamental principles in the way they react to one another on stage. If you were to take a beginning course on improvisational acting, you would likely be introduced to some variation on the following guiding principles at your first meeting:


  1. Be Present

  2. Listen--Really Listen!

  3. Let Go of Personal Agenda

  4. "Yes, anding".... "No butting" (or blocking)

  5. Make Others Look Golden

    For an improvisational performance to work, the actors must remain riveted on the present ("Be Present"), paying concentrated attention to what is being said, how it is being said, who is saying it, and so on. It is not easy to remain so steadfastly in the present--you are the enviable exception if you spend much of your time there. But improvisational actors must be there, all the time, in order to react and respond in a way that feels integrated and coherent to a critical audience.

    By listening ("Listen--Really Listen!") with every sensory tool the actor has (hearing, seeing, feeling, intuiting, etc.), he or she can best understand exactly what the other actors are conveying (and that the audience is watching and interpreting) and can respond spontaneously and logically to the "gift" that has just been presented. We use the word gift because improvisational actors must accept with gratitude whatever has just been conveyed on the stage, and respond appropriately to that special gift, regardless of what one's personal agenda might be. For example, as one of the actors you might think that the play is going to be about a trip to the beach, but if the opening actor begins with the line "Let's all go snow skiing in the mountains," then your response must flow coherently from that premise. If you reply with "No, I want to go to the beach," the audience will sense the incoherence (we don't usually choose between going to the beach and snow skiing all in one 30-second exchange) and begin to lose interest in the play. Hence letting go of personal agenda ("Let Go of Personal Agenda") is fundamental to good improvisation.

    One basic technique for "accepting the gift" and replying appropriately is to think about responding with the word "and" instead of "but." Starting with "and" is a way of expressing acceptance of what has just been said, and building on that line. The word "but" is a way of blocking, of rejecting what has just been given. "But it's so hot out. I want to go to the beach" doesn't do much as an "acceptance" and "build on" to the expression "Let's all go snow skiing in the mountains." So the safer mode of responding is to begin with "yes, and" instead of "but" ("'Yes, anding'--'No butting' (or Blocking)").

    Finally, the first rule (at least in our rule book) of theater is to make your fellow actors look good. That is true for both improvisational and script acting. You are probably familiar with the term "upstaging,"...

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