Improv. Comedy and Empathy — How do Strategies Map to the Empathy Pyramid?

Nice Carnaval Parade

On a recent visit to Boise, ID, to visit some friends, I had the good fortune to have my wife stumble across a site for improvisational comedy (Improv. for short) that just happened to be hosting a workshop one of the free nights we had. Called Recycled Minds Comedy, they were holding their Level 2 training, open to the public. Taught by Jon Buffington, who sports 11 years of improv training, and organized by Sean Hancock, another award-winning performer, the title of the class was ‘Never Draw a Blank.’

Jon’s method involved five basic principles that could be applied in any improv. scene. These were (in no particular order — I didn’t take notes!)

  • Feeling
  • Matching
  • Observation
  • Opposition
  • Physicality

Jon went on to do an excellent job of teaching, integrating what was probably close to 20 diverse students, split about 60/40 men/women in rapid fire pacing in what’s known as ‘3 line improv.’ Given the technique (like ‘Feeling’) students were given a word, and then had to create together three coherent statements that created a scene. Some of these were absolutely hilarious. What was amazing though, was that virtually none of them really fell flat. Improv. students were given enough coaching and structure to create the connection between a given pair so that humor naturally emerged.

I’ve written before about how humor maps to the different parts of the brain, and can tell you much about the empathetic development of a person. What was amazing was that the five techniques Jon discussed fell perfectly into line with the Empathy Pyramid.

So here goes:

  • Matching => Mirroring Behaviors as a ladder to higher empathetic modes
  • Feeling => Emotional Empathy
  • Observation => Rational and potentially Conscious Empathy
  • Opposition => Anti-empathy
  • Physicality => Direct Mirroring

What was also interesting was Jon’s comments regarding the different empathetic modes. While not disparaging physicality, or mirroring for mirroring’s sake, he did say it was lower on the list than the best humor, which he said was observational. Slapstick can be fun, but it doesn’t deliver the deeper insight and nuanced, multiple-solution meaning that personal interpretation does.

There’s a lot more to unpack here, of course. One of the strengths of doing improv. with groups is that it gives them a shared experience for cementing educational processing, and as such, maps into the neurobiology of education I explain in this blog. It’s cheap — all you need is a room, a handful of words, and a great coach. There might need to be some up-front work for the types of subjects relevant to various audiences in a corporate training venue — but it would be as good a complement as any for a team-building exercise. Nothing wrong with loading the Dev. Team in a whitewater raft for the day. But this activity dovetails well.

One final comment — by creating directed synergy scripts, (like yes-and) improv. also offers a way to attenuate the behavior of high-conflict players. There’s a potential here for working through conflicts through good external forcing from the teaching authority. Jon demonstrated a profound ability to create a safe space for people to experiment. While it also was certainly true that the people who showed up wanted to be there, and were ‘all in’, the template was simple enough for everyone to have fun, while doing serious learning.

All in all, I did have a great time, even though I only watched. And I would highly recommend both Sean and Jon for real corporate paying gigs. It will be fun to watch the effort continue in a mid-size city like Boise, which is definitely on the move.

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