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Rules For Life: What Improvisation Teaches Us

What if there were a fun, low-pressure way to reduce your anxiety, build resilience, improve your connection with other people, and strengthen your ability to adapt to life on life’s terms?

Welcome to the world of improvisation. Improv, or the art of making something up on the spot, without a script, score, or any sort of planning, or “of composing, uttering, executing, or arranging anything without previous preparation” ( is frequently utilized by popular comedians such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert. While improv’s goal is not necessarily to be funny, but to encourage creativity, through allowing oneself to be inspired and let go of self-consciousness. We all could use a bit of this, right?

Improv is also being taught in medical and dental schools, to help students in managing clients ranging in age, cultural background, and personality while also dealing with students’ own anxiety while performing surgery. For instance, the University of California at Los Angeles School of Dentistry’s Medical Improv class has been well-received by students, who not only enjoy the mutually supportive, fun, and adventurous class taught by Dr. Craig Woods, but who also improve in the areas of listening, empathy, spontaneity, thinking on one’s feet, dealing with status, and multi-tasking – skills we all can use.

In addition, improv skills are also being taught in the workplace, to promote teamwork and negotiation. Employees find that through practicing improv, their ability to brainstorm and consider ideas from a different angle is heightened. When dealing with uncertainty, people trained in improv are well-equipped to adapt to potential or actual change, manage conflict, and communicate effectively.

Chicago’s famed Second City improv company, which produced gifted improvisers such as Fey, Carell, Colbert, John Candy, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele, now offers an extensive list of improv classes for anxiety. There’s something about being in a room with others and being asked to do any number of exercises that demand your immediate attention, and being given license to say, be, or do just about anything, that loosens you up.

Anyone can benefit from becoming proficient in improv techniques. Tina Fey, in her best-selling book Bossy Pants, describes some basis rules of improvisation that you can apply to your life right now:

  1. Agree, and say Yes. If your scene partner says that it’s raining outside, accept this and work with it. It doesn’t help matters to insist that the sun is shining. It is what it is, and you work with it. In “real life” this stance of acceptance and turning toward the situation rather than away from it is just as helpful. As they say, “What we resist, persists”. When we accept (meaning that we are aware, not necessarily that we like or condone) a situation, we are better able to assess what’s going on and what the best indicated step for us might be.
  2. Say Yes, and… You have an active part in the situation. This would be the improv equivalent of being proactive. Do you have a friend who responds to your suggestions with either “No” or “Yes, but…” It can take the wind out of your sails, right? The conversation can either grind to a halt or dissolve into nitpicking. Isn’t it more energizing when someone (including yourself) replies, “Yes, and we can also…” You can validate the other person and at the same time add something to the conversation or activity. For instance, let’s say that your spouse expresses interest in going to a particular movie. This may not be at the top of your list of things to do, but you can make the best of the situation by saying, “Yes, and we can go to dinner beforehand at ….” Thus you are contributing to the scenario, rather than taking a passive stance.
  3. Make statements. Another way of being assertive rather and taking responsibility for your attitude and actions. While asking questions has its place, often what is needed is to take a stand, be it about your feelings, your observations, and your decisions. Using questions as your primary mode of communication (once you’re an adult) can seem as if you’re a victim or a child, rather than a person with his or her independent viewpoint. For example, instead of frequently asking, “What do we do now?”, practice stating, “I’d like to…” or “Let’s…” This approach also tends to add clarity to the situation at hand.
  4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities. One delightful aspect of comedy improv is that the members of the troupe truly have one another’s back (which is also a common pre-show ritual, of actually patting one another’s backs and stating, “Got your back”). Very refreshing. Furthermore, if an improv performer gets off-track in a scene, forgets their scene partner’s name, etc., the usual response is for all of the other players to applaud the performer, who then takes a bow. It’s a great reminder not to take ourselves too seriously and just stay in the moment and give it our best shot.

Additional improv principles include:

  • Be there for your partner. Your role is to be supportive and receptive.
  • Listen. Focus on the other person. Do not think about what you are going to say.
  • Stay in the moment. In other words, be mindful. You cannot respond effectively to unexpected situations if you’re preoccupied with the past or the future.

So, think about trying these tips in your life. In addition, check out the local improv class offerings in your community. Or go to a comedy improv show and marvel at the performers’ flexibility and willingness to roll with whatever happens. It’s a fantastic way to approach each day, situation, and interaction.

Photo by Judy Lin/UCLA

Rules For Life: What Improvisation Teaches Us

Rachel Fintzy Woods, MA, LMFT

Rachel Fintzy Woods, M.A., LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist in Santa Monica, California. Rachel counsels in the areas of relationships, the mind/body connection, emotion regulation, stress management, mindfulness, emotional eating, compulsive behaviors, self-compassion, and effective self-care. Trained in both clinical psychology and theater arts, Rachel works with people to uncover and develop their unique creative gifts and find personal fulfillment. For 17 years, Rachel has also been conducting clinical research studies at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the areas of mind/body medicine and the interaction of psychological well-being, social support, traumatic injury, and substance use. You can read more about Rachel at her website:

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APA Reference
Fintzy Woods, R. (2017). Rules For Life: What Improvisation Teaches Us. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Jul 2017
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