How to Use Improv Theatre to Improve Therapeutic Parenting

March 24th, 2011

By Billy Kaplan, LCSW — HCC President & Clinical Director

I recently sat down with the folks from the Improv Playhouse, a professional theatre and entertainment organization serving the Chicagoland area. I described the principles of therapeutic parenting, while they told me about the principles of improv theatre. It didn’t take long for us to realize we were talking about the same things, with slightly different language! It seemed evident to me that parents can gain so much by learning the principles of improv theatre. Helping you build your toolbox of therapeutic strategies and skills is why we’ve invited the fine folks from the Improv Playhouse to our conference, Parenting in SPACE, the weekend of April 2 & 3!

For a sneak peek of some of the strategies we’ll be exploring, read on!


This is as simple as the using the phrase “Yes, and…” in responding to others as a way to build on their ideas and expand them. It is also the term used to describe the concept of accepting what others say and enhancing, expanding, and building on that idea to move things forward. This is in contrast to “Yes, but..” and “No” which stop collaboration and forward momentum. “Yes, and…” makes you more positive. It can filter into all aspects of your life.


Making your partner look good means listening, encouraging, and looking for ways to support what others are doing.  It is necessary for collaboration. It means suspending our tendency to make ourselves look good, and letting go of competitive, adversarial and antagonistic behaviors that can be present in group dynamics. The good of the group is best served by everyone helping to push forward ideas. In acting, partner is a term that means your scene partner. When you apply the concept at home, it means your child or spouse. What makes your partner look good? Looking for ways to help them, having compassion, being graceful, letting them off the hook, and empathizing. Even more than that, you could turn it around, improve, build, expand, transform, or celebrate what they have done or said. Pointing out their mistakes, making sarcastic remarks, or silently letting them go down in flames are all examples you may have seen that do NOT accomplish the goal.


Listening is something we all do every day. In improv the concept of listening goes beyond hearing words that others are saying. Deeper listening involves letting go of your own ideas and being in the moment to take in what is being communicated both verbally and non-verbally. Many of us are often waiting for a pause to insert our own ideas, using the time others are speaking to refine what we are going to say when they stop. This impedes true listening. Listening involves absorbing what and how things are being expressed from a holistic point of view, including gesture, inflection, expression, body-language, and vocal tone. In doing this we are seeking to understand the full meaning in its context.


The key is to focus on the other person instead of yourself, your own reaction, or what you are going to say. You may also have to put away your expectation of where they are going with it. Open yourself up to being surprised. An offer can be anything that you communicate. The definition is so broad that it is challenging to describe, other than to say “everything is an offer”. Saying “hello” to someone on the street is an offer, opening your mouth to talk in a meeting is an offer, and putting forward an idea in that meeting is also an offer. Accepting offers means listening to them and making an offer in return in the spirit of “Yes, and…” In the examples above, accepting the offers could be saying “hello” back, pausing and giving your attention to the person that wants to speak, and nodding and saying “interesting idea” to the person offering it in the meeting. Blocking those same offers might look like ignoring the greeting hello, talking louder and turning away to prevent another speaker, or replying to the idea offers with “Yeah, right. Moving on!” It stops the action, diminishes the offer and negates what has happened.


As humans we are natural storytellers. Much of how we communicate and think comes from telling stories to ourselves and others. Each story that we tell involves people, experiences and ideas that we have interacted with in our lives (Sawyer, 2007). In this way our stories are a collaboration with all of those elements that we have experienced. Bringing together the combined experiences of several people allows us to tell stories as a group with each person adding their own offers. Collaboration also suggests the co-creation of the narrative. Collaboration means listening for those offers and accepting them in a way that makes your partner look good and builds on them by “Yes, and-ing” them.

CELEBRATE FAILURE (make mistakes boldly)

Improv and collaboration require constantly taking risks in varying degrees. Mistakes and failure are inevitable as we engage in taking risks, and it is our reaction to those failures that defines the collaborative environment. In improv, the risk-taking is celebrated and the failure is embraced, which is counter to our natural tendency. This means that we are free to move forward boldly and without hesitation, without censorship of ideas, and without critique of ourselves or others. Celebrating failure unlocks creativity and gives us the freedom to explore alternatives and find elegance that might have been otherwise discarded.


The idea of celebrating failure seems to be counter to success or, worse, endorses thoughtless, careless or reckless behavior. The key principle is that we deal with survivable risks– failure as a result of dedicated effort with the intention of success. The idea is celebrating the risks involved with innovation. The nature of risk-taking in any group or organization can range from personal risks of sharing your ideas and building relationships to trying new products or processes. It can be easy to discount, out of hand, the principle of celebrating failure with examples of reckless behavior such as betting all of the corporate assets on a game of roulette. Quick reactionary decisions without due care in the process may not be survivable risk for a company, leader or individual and therefore are not the intention behind this principle.