15 ways improvisation skills can enhance your coaching

  • 15 ways improvisation skills can enhance your coaching

    In the 24 years I spent working as an actor it never dawned on me that I would leave the business for a second career, let alone that the skills I’d worked so hard to attain would serve me in such a different arena. However, as I launched my practice as a coach back in the early 2000’s I soon discovered those well-toned acting muscles inside me were not only useful, they placed me in really good stead from the outset. Now, as a coach trainer, passing those skills along to my coach students via improv exercises, I often watch as the ICF Core Coaching Competencies go from theory to full embodiment.


    15 Ways Improv Can Enhance Your Coaching Skills (and be really fun!)


    Here are just a few ways actor’s improvisation skills (improv) and coaching competencies align.


    1. Clear agreement:  In improv, one of the first things we learn is how to step into agreement with our scene partners regarding what and where the scenes take place. Improv stages don’t typically include sets or big props to work with; just a couple of chairs on a plain wooden platform. Because of that, getting on the same page as our partners means we have to physically and verbally set the scene right off the bat, even down to the imaginary temperature. As a coaches we are required, not only to have agreements with our clients about what we are offering for how much and how long, but also the client’s agenda. Improv can instill a strong ethic around making sure everyone is on the same page.
    2. Trust and intimacy: Improv actors have a code that says you don’t ever shut your partner down or leave them hanging. Our improv partners will have invited us into a world they created, so it’s paramount that we support their welfare as we join them in scenes. Similarly, in coaching, we are required to show genuine concern for our client’s welfare and respect for their perceptions. Learning to be a respectful and trusted team player is a powerful tool for life, let alone coaching.
    3. Meeting them where they are and building on it: There is an improv exercise called “Yes, And” that teaches us to meet our partners where they are and build on it. That is also how we describe what we do with our clients. We are asked to encourage, accept, explore and reinforce our clients’ expressions of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs, and suggestions, and Improv can strengthen our ability to Integrate and build on what our clients bring to us.
    4. Dancing in the moment: This is the ability to be in the moment and flexible with whatever is presented, and is one of the most valuable skills an actor can bring. As coaches we must have the ability to be fully conscious and present and create spontaneous relationships with our clients, employing a style that is open, flexible and confident. Improv can help us dance more freely as coaches.
    5. Going with the gut: Sometimes the most intangible parts of us are the wisest and most creative. As long as we are in alignment with our client’s agenda, accessing our own intuition is a must. Trusting our inner knowing—“going with the gut.”—can be greatly enhanced with some improv training.
    6. Direct communication/feedback using data: Many years ago I studied a particular improv style created by Sanford Meisner. We would sit in pairs and share simple data observations of our partners, for example, your hands are on your lap. Among many of the learnings this exercise allowed, it taught us to stick with data rather than make interpretations about our partners. As coaches, direct communication and feedback are not about sharing our interpretations about the clients experience by saying things like, I see you’re angry/sad/frustrated/relieved. It is not helpful to assume anything about our clients, or anyone else for that matter. It is far more powerful to use data when we give feedback—The skin on your face just went a shade redder / you looked down when you said that /  you said {….} and then you said {….} / you took a deep breath—and then let the client discover their experience for themselves.
    7. Being open to not knowing: As you can imagine, improv is all about not knowing what is about to happen and still being spontaneous and courageous with our actions. A core coaching competency aligns with this. Being open to not knowing, taking risks, and letting go of the need to be right or in control can leave room for that most open of human states—curiosity.
    8. Playing in the realm of possibilities: The biggest item asked of improv actors is creativity, which requires being open to multiple possibilities and then making the most effective choices. Similarly, coaching asks us to see many ways to work with the client and choose, in the moment, what might be most effective. We are asked to be confident in our ability to shift perspectives and experiment with new possibilities for our own actions, and improv can build our confidence playing in that realm.
    9. Using humor: Of course, improv is known for being a comedy craft and, not only are improv classes tremendously fun, we get to access our funny side when we let loose and play with our partners. We can also use humor in our coaching engagements, as long as the intent is to serve our clients’ awareness and help them move forward. Used appropriately humor can create lightness and energy.
    10. Being with strong emotions: Improv is not always about having a laugh. Any kind of engagement can bring up real emotions in people, like anger and sadness, especially when playing out scenarios. An important aspect of powerful coaching is being able to demonstrate confidence in working with strong emotions, self-manage and not be overpowered or enmeshed by our clients’ emotions. This requires, first and foremost, that we are in touch with and able to masterfully process our own emotions. Improv can be a safe place to explore our own and others’ natural human facets.
    11. Seeing what’s beneath the words: Just as in life, when we act, coach, or are being coached we often express a lot more with our bodies and the ways in which we speak than we do with our actual words. Actors have to cultivate an awareness of what their characters are saying beyond the scripted dialogue. They have to be equally aware of what is going on with the person in front of them. In improv we have to think fast and be super aware of what is happening with our scene partners. As a coach, that can train us to better distinguish between the words, tone of voice, and body language of our clients.
    12. Knowing when to let them go on: In improv a huge part of supporting our partners comes through standing back and allowing them to tell their story. Knowing how long it serves them to do that takes experience. The same goes for working with coaching clients. There’s a benefit in allowing them to vent or “clear” the situation without judgment or attachment in order to move on to next steps. We can become more proficient at timing this with improv training.
    13. Knowing when to cut in:  Again, it’s all about timing. In improv, cutting into a scene to join in at the right time is part of the art. As coaches there will be many times when our clients are better served when we step in and interrupt what may be holding them in a cycle. Many of my coaching students have a difficult time interrupting or bottom-lining their coachees when they are engaging in long, descriptive stories. Most of us were taught that it’s rude to do so, but if we’ve established rapport and are engaging with our client in a respectful and collaborative manner, it can really help them move forward. With improv we can practice doing this, and subsequently better deliver the service our clients hired us for.
    14. Being incisive and articulate: When an actor uses his or her own dialogue, as we do with improv, the tendency for a beginner is to ramble or ask a lot of questions. I see the same thing in many of the newer coaches we train. Long, convoluted questions are fairly typical from newbies. Improv can teach us to choose our words for greatest impact so that we are clear, articulate and direct in our inquiry and feedback.
    15. Going “meta” and seeing detail concurrently: There is a wonderful skill that improv can provide which is the ability to see the big picture and at the same time be aware of the minutest details. The actor goes “meta” on the scene in front of them, and can be creative and take action from that standpoint. At the same time the minutest detail in their partner’s physiology or words inform them. Going meta as a coach means stepping back from the actual conversation and commenting or inquiring about the conversation or coaching engagement itself. What is it like to talk about this? / How is this going for you? / You have said {….} five times since we sat down together. / What are you most getting out of our time? We are also acutely aware of the tiniest detail in language, tone and physicality and we let that inform our inquiry.


    In short, improv can take us out of our mental noise and into our creativity and consciousness. If you’ve never tried it you may be surprised at how much it can stretch out your coaching skills, allowing you to be a more present, aware, and holistic support. If you have tried it, you can always revisit. After all, there’s really only a win in having so much fun!

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