Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Power of Play and Improv in Coaching and Mentor Coaching

We are pleased to share an article entitled “The Power of Play and Improv in Coaching and Mentor Coaching” written by Betsy Salkind & Amy Warshawsky.


Improvisation is at the heart of coaching. If you ask a room full of coaches if they’ve ever done improv, most of them will say, “No.” It’s a trick question; we’re all improvising all the time. There are no scripts in coaching; we improvise throughout every session. Like improv (in theater or comedy), coaching requires being in the moment, listening and responding. Play and creativity are not just a fun feature — but fundamental to coaching.

As mentor coaches in a coach training program, we noticed a tendency among students to be overly serious, and were pretty sure that coaching could be fun for both clients and coaches.  How could we convey this?  With backgrounds in comedy and theater, we decided to draw on powerful experiences with improvisation to create the conditions for coach development and joy.

Eight coaches are in a Zoom “circle.” Each coach says one word; the only rule is their word has to start with the last letter of the word before: Barn. Noodle. Elephant. Tantalizing. Gigantic. Crispy. Yuck. Kitten. After a few rounds, new instruction is given; this time, there is no restriction on the word, it’s free association based on the word immediately before: Cat. Litter. Trash. Reality TV. Naked. Excitement. Fireworks. Pollution. Renewables.

The facilitator then asks, “What did you notice? What was interesting? And finally, What does this have to do with coaching?”

Improv and coaching both have a good deal of structure (often hidden from the audience or client) in which we can explore and play. This is how children and animals learn, too. Starting with a set of rules and agreements, we co-create. Because it’s also fun, participants can easily enter a state of full engagement, or flow.

An experiential, playful approach to learning the art and practice of coaching is rich and effective. While coaching can be serious business with ethics and red flags at the top of the list of critical concepts, coaching at its heart is creative and empowering. Holding play as the best practice for learning coach skills and competencies enables coaches to grow into empathic, deeply present coaches.

The Power of Doing

The journey to skilled coaching has no end. Like our clients, we are in a continuous discovery of skill, new approaches, and awareness. As a methodology for education, there has been extensive research about the function of play and how effective it is in learning, growth and development. In the Cone of Learning (see Fig. 1), active learning takes place in the realm of “doing.” Ninety percent of what we both say and do is remembered through activities such as doing a dramatic presentation, simulating and doing the real thing.


What Does This Look Like in Practice?

Firstly, the main rules of improv we carry over into Improv for Coaches (with thanks to Tina Fey):

  1. Say YES (to the coaching conversation, to the game, to engaging)

  2. Yes, AND (we don’t just engage, we add, we offer something to our partner that moves the scene/conversation forward)

  3. Make statements (as opposed to only asking questions) – Don’t just interrogate your partner, but also share your insights, observations, ideas (i.e. reflect). This doesn’t mean never ask questions, which is a key skill in coaching, but don’t leave out reflective listening

  4. There are no rules/there are no mistakes, just happy accidents.  – Sometimes great learning (and laughs) come from errors/failures.  Let’s lower the stakes and see what we can learn from everything

As coaches, mentor coaches, or facilitators, we use agreements to support clients one-on-one and in group settings to support one another in a non-competitive, interactive environment.

What does an Improv for Coaches session look like?

We start every Improv for Coaches session with group warm-ups (like the example at the top of the article) where the emphasis is on fun, creativity, and engagement. Then we choose a structure for coaching, what we call “coaching with a twist,” that allows for the development of specific coaching skills or competencies.

One such structure is 3-word coaching, in which both the coach and client are allowed three words each, alternating back and forth. The emphasis is not on forming perfect 3-word sentences, but on getting to the essence of what we want to communicate. It helps coaches be succinct, present, and connect beyond words; it also helps the client to connect with what’s important to them and what they really want to say; and it tends to slow down the conversation giving space and time to both parties.

Here is a transcript from a 3-word coaching conversation:

What’s bringing joy?    (Coach)

  • It’s beautiful out          (Client)

What else warms?

  • My meditation practice

You are disciplined

  • Certainly not always (laugh)

You’re also flexible.

  • When feeling good

Easier when up

  • You got it

What’s our focus?

  • Feeling better emotionally

Tell me more

  • Getting through grief

You’re missing Neil

  • Thanksgiving is hard

First one alone

  • Dreading the holidays

How ideally experienced?

  • Freedom and connection

Connection with …

  • Friends, self, god

Freedom means what?

  • Breathing in life

Ideal is engaged

  • Light, upliftment and joy

What’s the setting?

  • Wherever I am?

It’s in you

  • Yes

What’s present now?

  • Hope and attachment

Please say more

  • Hope to evolve

And attachment to?

  • Death, Neil, Evie, 

Attached to love

  • And also negativity

Want letting go

  • Exactly.

How honor them?

  • “At the roundabout” [client imitates loved one’s voice]

You lit up

  • It was funny (laughter)

Humor is key

  • Humor is gift

What’s current emotion?

  • I feel better

What taking forward?

  • I can shift

Mindfulness and wisdom

  • Must stop self-judging

Want self-compassion

  • Compounding suffering dumb

You want ease

  • Ease and flow

What brings flow?

  • Art, writing, giving

What’s a take-away?

  • Gratitude really works

After each round, we invite participants and observers to share insight and discovery. Our emphasis is always on the coach’s strengths, and we invite both the coach and observers to identify them. We also leave space for coaches to work through challenges from their base of strength. We then invite learning and integration based on the entire session.


Creativity and play furthers the fundamental quality of coaching, which is a generative undertaking. This applies to both one-on-one and group coaching and mentor coaching. Group mentor coaching is an especially powerful modality as it builds confidence and connection through active demonstration. A playful approach leaves participants with a felt experience and a more eclectic coaching style. This kind of learning sticks.

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