improv for therapists

3 Things Therapists Can Learn from Improv

Over the years I have taught all types of people in my improv classes and workshops. The majority of people are actors and improvisers, but another group that I’ve found can really benefit from improv are therapists, life coaches, and health professionals.

Why? Because therapy, just like improv, is all about listening. And when therapists can learn how to drop their own agenda and instead stay in the moment and actively listen to their clients, they are able to be more effective and have a lot more fun.

If you’re a therapist or in the helping profession here are three things you can learn from improv:

  1. How to be a better active listener
    Unlike in sketch comedy or stand-up, which is written out ahead of time, improv is all about learning how to truly be in the moment and react off of the last thing your scene partner said. To do it well, you have to let go of what you are planning in your head and instead focus on what your partner is saying. It means constantly emptying your mind so you can respond in the moment. It means observing your scene partner before they even speak and processing their body language to see how they are feeling emotionally. By doing this, we are forging a deeper connection with our scene partner on stage. We are listening on many levels — physical, emotional and verbal — to get an accurate read on our partner in that particular moment. Now as a therapist, imagine how much more effective you would be if you could apply this skill to your clients in individual or group therapy?
  2. How to drop your agenda
    This is one of the hardest things for therapists, life coaches and health professionals to do. Why? Because therapists think they have to be the experts and have to all the answers. Sometimes they end up doing all the work for the client and they don’t even know it. In that case, nobody benefits. The client doesn’t really learn their own lessons and the therapist is drained. In improv, we understand that by working together, we are able to create something better than if we try to work by ourselves. As a therapist, the more you are able to drop your own agenda and instead meet your clients where they are and be willing to follow your their lead, the more effective you will be. 

    Just like improvising on stage, letting go of your agenda comes done to trust, and this is no different for people in the helping professions. They have to trust their experience and skill, be willing to let go of control and be in the moment with their client or group. When you do this you will get a result beyond your expectations, your clients will get even more benefit, and you will feel invigorated. 
  3. How to have more fun
    Having fun is not something you often hear about in the helping professions. You may think, “How can we have fun when we are dealing with serious issues in people’s lives?” Because of that, the job can often be demanding and taxing. Applying improv to therapy doesn’t mean you’re going to start cracking jokes at your client’s expense; it means using the spontaneity of improv and applying it to your sessions. When I teach, my demeanor can sometimes be serious, yet I am still having fun, because I don’t know where we are going or where we are going to end up. This can be exciting. And when the class is over, I often hear students say, “We got so much of that class. I loved how one thing built off of the next thing.” I can tell you that was not planned; I was improvising with them. I was listening and following them and constantly dropping my agenda. When you learn to work this way, you’ll automatically have more fun.

Want to learn more about how improv can help you as a therapist and also have fun working with other people in your field? Join me for my next Improv for Therapists One-Day Workshop on Sept. 15, 2019 at Stage 773 in Chicago.


3 replies
  1. Bey
    Bey says:

    I recommend the podcast Feeling Good by David Burns.

    It has a lot of real therapy techniques, many of which involve roleplay. USeful for improvisers and therapists a like.

    It’s target is both therapists and patients and it’s interesting to learn about the different techniques and hear stories about how they work

  2. Margot Escott LCSW
    Margot Escott LCSW says:

    Great blog. There are so many therapists performing and teaching improv across the globe today we even have a conference, The Yes, and Mental Health & Improv, where you spoke last year. You might want to check out the research on improv for therapists done by Assael Romanelli, Ph.D. (he was also a presenter last year)
    When I teach improv for therapists I use mindfulness conceptions and meditations. I think it’s great for all improvisers!
    I know your class will be great!

  3. Rick Bolnick, Psy.D.
    Rick Bolnick, Psy.D. says:

    I attended Jimmy’s one day workshop for therapists once years ago. I was so taken by Jimmy that I then signed up for his “Art of Slow Comedy” classes… which eventually led to me (who would have ever guessed) becoming part of an Improv Group that now performs.

    More recently, this psychologist did a repeat of his one day Sunday workshops for therapists. I always get a lot out of working with Jimmy.


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