How to Deal with Uncertainty
3 improv principles can help us feel more confident, calm, and connected.
Posted Mar 20, 2020
I was going to write about improvisation and education this month, but that all went out the window when schools started closing their doors. Parents are trying to work from home while teaching their children, and other people are losing their jobs and unable to make ends meet. Exponentially more people are getting infected each day, and people are dying. We may not be able to meet the impending medical needs. Saying things are uncertain is a gross understatement.
The current coronavirus/COVID-19 global pandemic is a game-changer. We are being asked to self-isolate and to practice social distancing to stop the spread of the virus and to “flatten the curve.” However, we don’t know how long this new normal will last. There are rumors that self-isolating might last until August or will happen at regular intervals for the next 18 months.
The current pandemic is the epitome of uncertainty. We just don’t know how bad things will get, and we’re starting to see this reflected in people’s behavior. People are stockpiling toilet paper and filling up multiple carts at the grocery store at 6 a.m. Uncertainty is scary, especially uncertainty of this magnitude.
What Improv Can Teach Us about Uncertainty
Improvisation has something to teach us. It has uncertainty at its core. When you take the stage without a script, there’s no telling what will emerge. So to handle this level of uncertainty, the forefathers and mothers of improv created some guidelines to make it easier for improvisers to collaborate.
I’ve extrapolated three main principles of improvisation that I call the Improv Paradigm, which can teach us how to deal with the uncertainty of this current crisis.
First, listening. Improvisation is all but impossible if people aren’t listening to each other. Imagine I say my name is Bob and I live in Florida. If you aren’t listening, you might respond, “Thanks for the soup, Mary. Let’s put on our parkas.” Deeply listening to each other helps us build off each other’s ideas instead of constantly floundering to figure out what’s going on in the scene.
Second, openness. I also think of this principle as nonjudgment. To ease the risk of going on stage without a script, I try my best to have an open mind and not judge my fellow players, their ideas, myself, or my ideas. If I’m judgmental, I’m going to miss some good ideas. If I feel like I’m being judged, I won’t be as receptive or creative.
Finally, collaboration. This is the famous “Yes And” principle. "Yes And" means that I have to go along with my partner’s idea and then add a new detail to the scene. Then I can feel confident that they’ll do the same for me.
The "Yes And" principle is the key to dealing with uncertainty. In improv, no one knows how the scene will end, but listening, openness, and "Yes And" give players confidence amidst that uncertainty.
Let’s look at two examples.
Let’s say two players jump onstage. The first says, “Mom, I need a Bomb Pop… and some sunscreen.” The second player follows the guidelines and says, “Sure, honey. I’m just happy you decided to spend your 30th birthday with me.” Now the two players know who they are and probably where they are. This knowledge gives them more confidence to explore the scene; they don’t have to worry about uncertainty because they’re working together to create the scene.
Now let’s say two other people take the stage. The first says, “Janet, you said you’d fax the contract over yesterday.” Unfortunately, the second player is not following our three rules. She is not open and thinks the idea is dumb, so she says, “Fax machine!?” She also wasn’t listening and introduces herself as Carla. Finally, she doesn’t follow "Yes And" by saying, “Besides, you work for me anyway.”
This scene is going to be excruciating. The two players can’t agree on who they are or what’s going on in the scene. I’ve been in scenes like this. It exacerbates the uncertainty and anxiety of going without a script. On the other hand, when we follow the three principles, we feel more grounded and confident in the face of uncertainty.
The Improv Paradigm for our Current Uncertainty
The Improv Paradigm can also give us some confidence to deal with the uncertainty of real life. We don’t have a script right now, and we don’t know how the coronavirus/COVID-19 scene is going to end. People are speculating and trying to compare our current situation to World War II, 9/11, or the Spanish Flu pandemic, but the reality is that we’re working without a script here.
Step one is to reach out to people you can trust. If those are the people you're self-isolated with, consider yourself lucky. If you're not in a safe situation, reach out to friends or professionals who make you feel seen, heard, and valued. I know many therapists are working hard to continue helping clients remotely. So do what it takes to find your team.
Then listen. Listen to your teammates. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but really connecting and actively listening will help us help each other through this uncertainty. If someone tells you they’re scared, that’s real for them. Hear it and explore it.
Be open. Now is not the time for judgment. We’re going to need everyone to contribute. That means we can’t be judging each other or feeling judged. Telling someone that hoarding toilet paper is dumb doesn’t make them stop hoarding. Be curious and supportive, instead of harsh and judgmental.
And collaborate. We’re going to need to work together and "Yes And" each other. This is not the time for black and white thinking or trying to be right or to win. To "Yes And" during this crisis, agree with people’s realities and then curious to know more. Divisiveness and infighting are like the improv scene where we can’t agree on each other’s names. It will make our uncertainty and anxiety more pronounced.
Perhaps the only thing we can be certain of is each other. We don’t know what the government will do, how the stock market will react, how many people will get infected and die, or how long this pandemic will upend our lives. But we can listen, be open, and collaborate to make each other feel seen, heard, and valued. This won’t make our current uncertainty disappear, but it will make us much more confident to work without a script.
Drinko, C. D. (2018). The Improv Paradigm: Three Principles that Spur Creativity in the Classroom. In Creativity in Theatre(pp. 35-48). Springer, Cham.
Roberts, S. (n.d.). Flattening the Coronavirus Curve. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/science/coronavirus-curve-mitigation-infection.html
Smith, D. (2020, March 17). Trump says coronavirus upheaval could last beyond August. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/16/trump-coronavirus-guidelines-press-conference