5 Ways Improv Can Enhance Relationships

#1 Positive Interactions

As almost everyone knows, the fundamental principle of improv is "Yes And", which is essentially affirming and validating each other's choices in an act of selfless collaboration. There's also a natural positivity when improv is done well because comedy is meant to lift our spirits. Incidentally, love is uplifting and positive, but over time it often slides into negative interactions.

John Gottman is a psychologist who studies how the daily interactions of couples affect their relationship over the long term. His research has accumulated enough data that Gottman can now view video tape of a couple interacting and predict (with 91% accuracy) whether their marriage will end in divorce within five years. The offending actions are often subtle microaggressions that many of us take for granted: contemptuous eye-rolling, exasperated sighing, and biting sarcasm. Casual, habitual negativity kills relationships. Improv is a positive and nonjudgmental art form; it gets us in the habit of sharing joy with the world.

#2 Wholeheartedness

Part of the spirit of Yes And is that scenes are exponentially better when the actors eagerly accept their partner's offers. New improvisers often reflexively block the offers from scene partners because they fear losing control of the scene. It’s interesting that the natural inclination many of us have is to put up defensive resistance to anything that challenges our comfort zone. The #1 trait of excellent improvisers is wholeheartedness, which is to have the spirit of jumping into things with zest and total commitment.

In life, couples reflexively block the ideas of their significant others because they’re reluctant to step outside of their comfort zones. Constant rejection can stifle the free-spirited nature of an otherwise healthy relationship. Approach your partner’s offers with wholeheartedness, and you will find that this eager acceptance is mirrored back to you.

#3 Active Listening 

You can't “yes” what you don't hear. If improvisers are overworking their brains by worrying about what to say, they're missing the line of dialogue to which they're replying. Someone once said that a good improv actor listens to his scene partner like he's listening to his lover. Why does this resonate with so many students? Because we all know the feeling of new love. Lovebirds want to immerse themselves in each other.

Sadly, when the oxytocin has worn off, we start to lose those intimate listening skills. Active listening means putting down the smart phone, making eye contact, asking follow up questions, and locking in to every word. It means you validate your partner by giving them your total attention. It isn't easy, but it's essential to a healthy relationship. 

#4 Defuse Arguments

Ever find yourself in an argument and wondering why you're continuing to argue? You don't even care that much; you just want to be right. Arguments are depressing, often pointless, and rarely move a relationship forward. Improv scenes are similarly weighed down by the heaviness of arguments, which is why we coach improvisers how to end them. Surprise surprise... a great way to end an argument is to let go of your pride and admit fault. And it turns out that admitting fault often leads to the heart of good improv, which is connect and be emotionally vulnerable. When you defuse the argument bomb, you start intimately connecting on a human level. How many times have you found yourself stuck in an automatic argument cycle? Break the cycle and connect. It's easier than you think.

#5 Know, Care, Say

Will Hines unlocked the secret to performing better improv scenes with three words: know, care, say.

“Know” means that you know the world of the scene. You’re familiar with the people, you understand your occupation, and you play at the top of your intelligence (your characters aren’t unnecessarily ignorant). It’s not a stretch to say that couples should show an interest in each other’s lives, to know each other and to be curious about each other. New lovers are hungry for information about each other because they want to know everything about the other person. Older relationships can take this for granted where couples are no longer even checking in with their partner.

“Care” means that the outcome of the scene matters, that the stakes are high, and the relationships are meaningful. Often, but not always, scenes that are the least successful are ones that are trivial and pointless. No surprise, but relationships are also the best when two people actively care about each other. Great marriages are filled with meaningful conversations, unforgettable vacations, and little acts of kindness. It’s easy to forget the importance of actively showing love when we have mortgages, teacher’s meetings, recitals, etc. It’s good to stop and purposefully take the time to connect with your partner.

“Say” means that great scenes, by their very nature, are interpersonal interactions between two people. That may seem obvious, but anyone who has seen improv has witnessed scenes that are about things, ideas, other people, and even irrelevant nonsense. The same is true about our relationships in life. The best conversations are ones that are meaningful. Allow yourself to slow down and connect with each other. Make time for a weekly check-in where you can voice what you appreciate, and also what’s been bothering you. Too often we keep things in.