Try These Improv Exercises To Practice Resilience in the Time of Coronavirus

Written by: Kelly Leonard, executive director of learning + applied improvisation and
Liz Joynt Sandberg, associate director of learning

When a client called us to help their people connect, engage and navigate this messy, scary and unwieldy time, we said “yes, and.” This simple phrase is an improv mantra that affirms and builds on an idea driving it forward. And it’s easier said than done because too often our default setting is to say ‘no’ or to do nothing. 

As Nobel Prize economist Richard Thaler wrote in his bestselling book Nudge, “People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option.” 

That inaction, or going with the flow, is the kind of behavior that breeds individual and organizational silence, which is a business killer. And in times of great upheaval - like now - it could be the difference between businesses that survive and those that do not.   

The work we’re doing now to help clients weather this unpredictable storm reminded us of a powerful quote by Audre Lorde, an influential African American writer, professor and activist born in New York City in the 1930’s. Lorde wrote: 

“Pain is important: how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it.” 

We are in a world of pain right now. As of this writing, 30 million Americans have filed initial unemployment claims. For those of us lucky enough to hang onto our jobs, many are working in less than ideal surroundings. Try being the single-parent to two kids who need to be homeschooled, by you, while you are on deadline for a new assignment. And oh, the kids need breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some are on the front lines, working in grocery stores or banks or drugstores, where the fear of possible infection can become a pain of panic and distress. 

In talking to our clients over the last month, it’s clear that companies are attuned to the wellbeing of their workforce more so than ever before. In our field, improvisational skills allow you to create habits of resilience - practices you can employ to give yourself the boost you need to weather the difficulties and complications that come with operating as a human being during a global pandemic. 

Here are three exercises that can help people discover and implement a resiliency practice for themselves and their work teams - virtual or otherwise.

Take that back

In the improv exercise Take That Back, participants work in trios to discuss their fictional travel plans. Two participants are describing a trip, while the third participant serves as the director. At any time, the director can clap their hands and ask the participant who just spoke to “take that back”, at which point the traveler must replace whatever was just said with an entirely new word or phrase. For example “I’m going to Istanbul” might become “I’m going to Thailand.” And if prompted again might become “I’m going to lose my mind”. 

The purpose of the exercise is to stimulate the real anxiety that can come with uncertainty (fear) and rejection or judgement (obstinance) in a playful, low risk environment to practice being resilient and agile during times of rapid change.

Count to 10

In Count to 10, participants are invited to count sequentially from 1 to 10 as a group. The only catch is that if more than one participant speaks at a time, we start again at one. As you can guess, chaos ensues. 

After the initial failure of the exercise, we discuss norms that could be applied by the group in a virtual session in order to be successful. For example, the group might decide that whoever types the number in the chat box first says the number. This autonomous decision-making  helps preserve our agency, and puts us in a problem-solving state of mind rather than problem-suffering.


In the exercise Wish, participants are asked to write down (and share in the chat) something they wish for. It can be anything, like “I wish to go swimming in the ocean.” Next, they’re asked to think about their wish, and write down how they’d feel if they could make their wish come true. For example “If I were to swim in the ocean right now, I think I’d feel refreshed and rejuvenated.”

Then, they’re asked to focus only on the feeling their wish would foster, and think of one thing they could do today to pursue that feeling. So while I can’t go swimming in the ocean, to feel more refreshed, I could go splash some water on my face between callIt’s easy to get stuck thinking about our unfulfilled wants and wishes right now, and forgo the experiences we can create for ourselves.

When we focus on interests (the feeling we desire) rather than events (the wish), we set ourselves up for a more flexible and actionable path to resolution and an increased sense of wellbeing. 

“Yes, and” is more than just an axiom of improvisation; it’s a directive towards our own agency in times of tumult and confusion. As Audre Lorde said herself, “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves.” It’s tough right now, but we can improvise our way through this thing together.

To learn how businesses can use the concept of “Yes, and” to practice resilience, agility and human-centric leadership, contact us.

For more information, listen to Second City Works’ podcast Getting to Yes, And or read Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration--Lessons from The Second City co-authored by Kelly Leonard about how The Second City takes the pedagogy of improvisation as a way to build better work and home lives.

Recent Feed Posts