Improvisational mindfulness in action

Session design –  Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium on Wed 14 May.

This session was designed with the action learning cycle in mind: starting with an experience followed by a theoretical framing.

Note: All sessions are designed according to the SNE STORI-model (What is STORI?)

SNE = Strategic Narrative Embodiment TM (What is SNE?)

Diagram showing How story moments are used to design a session.


Join us this Friday 31 May for an online experience of the same process

S – Strategic intent

The strategic intent is set at the start and ‘parked’ outside the space to define it, but not drive it.

Group intention:

We are here to discover what improvisational mindfulness is like and to understand how it relates to contemporary forms of mindfulness

Individual intent:

Each person set an individual intention for the session – what they want out of it. This intention is written down or tucked into a corner of the mind where it can be retrieved.

T – Transition

Exercise’s help transition from the mind only to include the body and heart, from individual thoughts to collective energy, from the past and future into the present.

Walking and shaking

As we walk and spread ourselves randomly in the space, shake out the imaginary grains of sand from your joints starting from the toe joints and moving gradually up the body to the jaw joint. Participants can imagine the sand making room for warm comfortable lubrication of the joints.

Nudge hello

Participants are invited to become aware of each other and make contact using small nudges. Use any part of the body to exert a small amount of pressure as you gently nudge each other, leaning into the nudge for as long or short as you please and always making sure both partners are only going as far as is comfortable for both. (Contact improv style)

Pair breathing

Find a partner, stand back to back and become aware of your breath. Breathe into your back so that your partner can pick up the rhythm of your breathing. At the same time concentrate on picking up your partner’s rhythm. Gradually find a collective rhythm so you breathe together.

Group breathing

Two pairs now come together. Again, stand so that you can become aware of one another’s’ breathing. Find a collective rhythm. You may begin to move in pulse with the rhythm with movements as big or small as you want to. Find a collective movement and rhythm.

O – Open experimentation

In this section we use longer form structures to deepen the experience. Here we use a structure from the SNE suite of techniques called ‘Moving story structure’

Moving story structure – Shortened version (complete instructions plus reflective worksheet available from

Step 1:

  • One by one participants find a position that symbolises what they want (based on the intention set at the start of the session) . Add to the image one body at a time until everyone is part of the image. Breathe three times as a collective to set the position. AS you breathe imagine that your body is filled with soft cement as you breathe in and imagine how it sets as you breathe out. When you are finished, step out of the ‘statue’ you have created and turn back to look at it in your imagination.


  1. Urge participants to stay in each moment breathing deeply three times. Make sure they allow themselves to fully experience the position. When they leave the position, they must look back on it in their imagination. This helps with objectification and distancing. It means they gain insight into their inside.
  2. About the breathing: I like to facilitate each of the three breaths slightly differently:

Breath 1: Just breathe and imagine your body is filling with cement and it sets on the out breath.

Breathe 2: Imagine that the cement flows to the extremities of the body – toes, finger tips, crown…

Breathe 3: imagine that it flows to the centre of your heart, your bones your soul.

Step 2:

  • Find a position that symbolises the obstacles you face when you try to achieve your objective. Again, do it one body at a time. Breathe three times to set the position. Again imagine it as cement setting and once again step out of the ‘statue’ and look back on it.
  • Move through A and B a few times with complete awareness.

Note: Encourage participants to move with awareness and care. Let them move between the first two positions a few times aware of the other bodies and their influence on your story.

Step 3:

  • Find a third position – one that embodies how you usually react when you come face to face with your obstacles. When in position C, breathe three times as before.
  • While in this position notice what kinds of things you usually say to yourself here.
  • Think about what this reaction costs you and how it might benefit you.
  • Step out of the ‘statue’ and look back on it.

Note: Once they have decided on position C (Step 3), let them stay in the position and listen to what they may be saying to themselves about being here. 

Step 4:

  • Take up position B. Feel the discomfort and notice where your body feels stretched or uncomfortable. Move from B through C to A. Repeat the sequence B – C – A. Repeat with awareness and experiment.
  • Note: This is the “Yes and…” moment: accepting our default responses as part of our story. You will now change the order of the positions. It no longer goes A – B – C, or even C – B – A. The “Yes and…” sequence is B – C – A. Let each participant find the impetus and the solution for the next step within the flow between B and C. Let them move and experiment a few times e.g. play with speed and weight, move like a clown, a child a length of silk – get suggestions from the participants.

Step 5:

  • Finally, take up position B one last time. This time move through B, C and A, but do not stop at A, Move through A, allowing the body find the next logical place for it to settle into a final position D. What would you find beyond the fulfillment of your original intention? Find the answer in your body, not your mind.

R – Reflect

Allow people to make sense of the experience verbally in writing or conversation. Also help them distil moments of significance.

Reflect in pairs/groups (depending on time)

Share your experience with a friend. What did you learn about how you might get what you want? What did your body teach you about the journey to the fulfillment of your intention?


Using the slides in the presentation make sense of the experience by comparing improvisational mindfulness to contemporary mindfulness.

Slides: Improvisational Mindfulness.ppt

I – Integration

Participants imagine how they might use what they have discovered in their outside lives.

Picture cards

Give each participant a picture card from the Playing Mantis Picture card set. Participants are asked to explain to each other in pairs and then to the group how this card describes exactly the action steps they need to take to experiment with improvisational mindfulness in their own practice.


Join us this Friday 31 May for an online experience of the same process

Free online course

To learn more about Strategic Narrative Embodiment TM, why not send me an email and I will sign you up for the free online component of the training course: Strategic Narrative Embodiment – Transformative facilitation for organisations. It is a university accredited short course.

Read all the details here.


Cosmic resistance – When the world is against me

Emmet from the Lego movieYou have lead your audience past four types of resistance: 1. their doubts and reservations about their own suitability (Personal resistance), whether or not they can trust you (Relational resistance), the practicality of the solution (Practical resistance) and the people that would be on the journey with them (Social resistance). Now they look at their context and go: “Great plan, but life just doesn’t work that way”.  They look at their reality and say: “What if the solution or the people having to implement it fail?” I call this cosmic resistance.

Cosmic resistance is what happens when everything is lined up to go and your budget is cut, or a key player gets sick and unable to continue, or the equipment simply fails. Through no fault of yours, or the people trying to make the difference, it just fails. What then?

In stories this is that devastating moment where all seems lost. This is when Andy Dufresne, in Shawshank Redemption learns that his eye witness was murdered by the prison warden, when Brave Heart is betrayed by one of his own, when, in The Great Escape, the fleeing prisoners discover that their tunnel is a few feet short of the cover of the trees.

In situations like these stories provide only one response: Reframe.

The Blonde goes to the doctor complaining of aches all over her body. “Where does it hurt?” The doctor asks. Pointing to her left shoulder, then her nose and then her right calf she answers: “Here and here and here”. The doctor takes her hand gently examining it and says “My dear, your finger is broken.”

This is a reframe: when the perspective is shifted from the detail to the big picture.

The following is a story structure to help your client or participants create their own reframe.. It comes from the world of Applied Improvisation.

Step 1. Reflect on an issue in your personal or professional life that you would really like to change. Complete the following sentence:

Concerning this issue, I really want  … (fill in what it is that you want to see happen).

But… (list one to 3 things that are in the way of you achieving this outcome – things that are blocking or frustrating your efforts).

Step 2. Cross out the ‘But’ and replace it with the word ‘and’. Now the obstacles become mere conditions for the solution, they are no longer blocks.

Step 3. Complete a final sentence:

So what if … (what alternatives can you think of that accepts the conditions for the solution.)

Anexample from a workshop participant:

As the event co-ordinator of a large networking evening, I really want my guests to feel at home and set the scene for a wonderful event. I also want to enjoy the event myself.

But  AND I am not a good speaker, my hands shake and I am afraid I will forget important information. I stress so much that the whole evening is a blur usually.

So what if I rehearse a short welcoming speech to set the scene and then get an MC to co-ordinate the rest of the event, so I can sit back and enjoy it.

When all is lost, it is time for a reframe. A story that beautifully illustrates this reframe is the recent Lego movie. All seems lost when Emmet, the main character fall into the void, the abyss. His friends believe he is dead and their cause seems lost. In fact, Emmet simply falls off the table where the humans build their lego models. He is picked up by the boy playing there and from this big picture perspective Emmet’s entire world is reframed. With this insight he returns to save the day.

Reframing one’s failures and see them from a fresh angle can break through cosmic resistance.

In conclusion

It may seem as though a coach or facilitator needs to break through all five types of resistance before the learning can start. This is a deception: it is the very process of breaking through the different kinds of resistance itself that brings about learning and change. Once all five are eliminated around one particular idea, that idea had been accepted – learned.

What of applying the idea?

If you present and use talking to break through all the resistances, yes, then you have but pointed the way and your clients must still walk the path for themselves. But, if you coach and facilitate your way through then, the client is the one breaking through and the shift is not yours, but theirs. Though every new idea may need a new cycle of break through and it may feel like you are going in circles – it is each cycle of the wheel that makes the vehicle, and the client, move.

Need a coach?Contact Petro in Johannesburg or Burgert in Cape Town

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The Playing Mantis (and SNE) coaching-facilitation philosophy

Strategic Narrative Embodiment participants in discussion

Conventional, also called ‘authoritarian’, learning and development philosophies are usually based on the idea that a learner is a ‘tabula rasa’ or clean slate onto which knowledge must be transferred. Learners are empty vessels into which the expert can pour information. In contrast, contemporary inclusive learning models view learners as participants rich with a personal body of knowledge acquired through experiences within unique contexts. Coaching and facilitation are processes that have developed out of these models, but are often still plagued by remnants of the transmission models of learning.

Here follows how SNE sees coaching and facilitation. (How do you see it?)

  1. Coaching-facilitation is a conversation not a monologue: for us, learning and development is no longer a top-down, one-way process, but rather a dialogical interaction between equal partners: facilitator-participant and participant- participant. Your expertise, therefore, lies in how well you can allow everyone to listen to a multiplicity of divergent ideas in one conversation, not in how well you get everyone to agree with your opinion.
  2. Delegates, not the agenda, need to drive the process: Where conventional methods assume that there is a notional ‘average delegate’ at which training should be aimed and who determines the standard, we believe that no such assumptions can be made. Rather, a systemic map must be created of participants’ needs and expectations and the facilitator’s own needs and expectations must be articulated. This is not a once-off occurrence, but happens continuously throughout the process.
  3. The process is driven by difference not sameness: In other words, participants do not form a more-or-less homogenous group where those who differ from the group can be categorised as ‘other.’ Rather, all people differ from one another and these differences are fundamental to our planning, processing and provision.
  4. Coaching-facilitation is more listening and responding than talking and controlling: As inclusive coach-facilitators the focus of our processes is not on content that needs transmission, and our role is not to control the outcome of the process. Rather, our focus is on the delegates with their experience, and our role is to facilitate the dialogue between the intention of the process (which may include information sharing) and the delegate. We become mediators of knowledge, not mere transmitters of it.
  5. Coaching-facilitation is creating experience, not merely transmitting information: Our workshop materials are therefore not mere extensions of a trainer, like a slide projector, transmitting information while learners participate mainly by looking (reading) and listening. Our materials, and indeed our entire methodology, aim to create or draw on experience where participants can take part with as many faculties as possible. It is a whole-brain, whole-body approach that allows delegates to take part in the meaning making.
  6. Relevance is more important than accuracy: In our sessions we value not so much questions relating to the material, but rather questions relating to the relevance of the learning for each delegate’s individual role and personal journey.
  7. There is more than one kind of knowledge: In our processes there is not just the coach-facilitator’s knowledge in the room, but also the tacit knowledge participants carry in their bodies and the group genius that arises from the collaboration between participants as they work to interpret and apply knowledge.
  8. Action and implementation speak louder than words and learned answers: The responsibility and ownership of the learning becomes that of the facilitator and the delegates alike. Assessment then focuses not on the reproduction of knowledge taught, but on its integration and implementation in the workplace – not on words, but on action.

Note: We acknowledge that some contexts ask for a certain amount of content as well as the accuracy of its application. 1+1=2 no matter how you look at it (or does it?). Still, we believe that information transmission, while it serves its purpose in many contexts, is overused and overvalued. This is especially true in situations where coach-facilitators and delegate-participants do not share the same frames of reference, so that much of the information that is being transmitted is lost in a fog of misunderstanding.

The role of improvisation

Acting in a set context without the benefit of scripted words and only the tacit knowledge accumulated through experience is called improvisation – the central concept around which our training revolves. Improvisation also draws on the ability of a group to generate solutions together and use dialogue to drive the story, and indeed the learning, forward.

Change 3 things


• Practice awareness skills.
• Practice creativity.
• Ice breaker.


In Pairs participants observe each other then turn around and change 3 things about their appearance. When they turn back to each other they must try to identify everything that their partner has changed.

Time: 10 min

Number of participants: 2 – 200

Game flow:

Ask all the participants to pair up. Tell them to observe each other. Then tell them to turn around and change 3 things about their appearance. For example role up one sleeve or take off an earring. Let them turn back to one another and try identifying everything that the partner has changed. You can repeat the game a few rounds, every time increasing the amount of changes.


People are often resistant to change their appearance but don’t let that flounder you. When people get over their initial resistance they will get great value from the exercise.

Debrief questions:

• What struck you about the exercise?
• How did you feel during the exercise?
• How was your awareness different than usual?
• Was it difficult or easy to find so many things to change about your appearance?

Yes and story


• Practice listening and awareness
• Practice accepting offers and building on them
• Practice focusing and reincorporating.


Participants tell a story in a circle, each participant contributing one sentence at a time.

Time: 20 min

Number of participants: 4-12

Game flow:

Have everyone sit in a circle. Get a name for an original story from the participants. Anyone in the circle may start to tell the story by saying an opening sentence. The person on their left then builds on the opening line by adding the next sentence to the story by starting their sentence with “yes and”. The person on their left then adds the next sentence also starting with “yes and.” Continue the telling of the story, each person starting their sentence with “yes and”, until it comes to a conclusion.


The easiest way to get a name for the story is to first get a name for the main character (ex. Jimmy). Then ask what Jimmy is (ex. a donkey). Then ask what the main character’s biggest challenge is (ex. to win the J&B Met). The name of the story could then be something like: “The day Jimmy won the J&B Med.”
Often people struggle to get the story to a conclusion. This could be a very interesting observation to debrief. When participants struggle to conclude the story, remind them of the title. For more advanced players you can tell the story without a title.

Debrief questions:

• What was interesting about this exercise?
• What made it difficult?
• What did you do to make it easier?
• What would you do next time to tell a better story?
• How did the title help or inhibit the story telling?

Variation: One word story

In this variation instead of contributing one sentence at a time the participants only contribute one word at a time.

Yes lets


• Build positive energy.
• Practice acceptance and appreciation.


Participants suggest random activities to be done by the group. The rest of the participants support these suggestions by responding enthusiastically with the words “Yes lets!” and then mime the suggested activities eagerly.

Time: 15 min

Number of participants: 6 – 20

Game flow:

Have everyone walk around in the space. Tell them that anyone in the group can make a suggestion for an action such as “Let’s climb a tree!” or “lets bake a cake!” Everyone then replies with the words “Yes lets!”, and mimes the action with enthusiasm. At any point someone else can make a new suggestion and everyone replies again with “Yes lets!” and again mimes the action. Continue until everyone has made at least one suggestion.


For this exercise you need enough space for everyone to move around.
Encourage everyone in the group to make at least one suggestion.

Debrief questions:

• How do you feel after playing this exercise?
• What was interesting about the exercise?
• How did it feel to have your suggestions supported with so much enthusiasm?
• How did it feel to support other’s ideas with so much enthusiasm?


The best way to make your team members look good is by accepting their suggestions and doing the action with enthusiasm. If someone said something like “let’s roar like lions” and just did it by himself, he would look like a fool and probably feel like one as well. What I love about this game is that you don’t just say yes I like your idea; you actually have to accept the idea by doing something with commitment. Often we will say we accept someone’s ideas but it’s just lip service, because we don’t actually take any action. The safety, trust and support that is generated when everyone in the team is committed to making the rest of the team look good, creates a energetic atmosphere in which innovation can thrive.



• Building energy.
• Accepting offers.
• Practice appreciation.
• Practice creativity.


Participants hand each other imaginary gifts. The giving participant only makes a physical offer, while the receiving participant names the gift and accepts it with enthusiasm.

Time: 15 min

Number of participants: 2 – 200

Game flow:

Have the participants stand in a circle. If there are more than 12 players let them pair up. Tell them to hand each other imaginary gifts. The giver only makes a physical gesture with their hands. The receiver then justifies the shape and weight of the giver by naming it appropriately. The receiver over accepts the gift with enthusiasm as if it is the one thing they have always wanted.


When doing the game in a circle let them pass gifts around the circle. In other words everyone gives a gift to the person on their left or right. Only one person gives a gift at a time while the others observe. When doing it in pairs the partners just give each other gifts.

Debrief questions:

• What was interesting about the exercise?
• How did it feel to have your gift appreciated like this?
• What did it feel like receiving the gift?
• How does this apply to creativity and collaboration?

Online adaptations

Since people in an online room cannot stand in a circle or make eye contact to connect with each other, the following adaptations can be made:

  1. The names of participants are visible on the screen, these names may be changed by participants if they wish. These names can be used in the game so that the participant wanting to pass a gift simply call the name of the person they wish to pass their gift to before doing so.
  2. Participants may also be given a number alongside their name as they enter the room. These numbers may be used to establish an order and in this manner replace the convention of a circle for deciding order.
  3. Encourage people to use distance from the camera as a way to create variety in the size and quality of the gift:  move away from the camera for big gifts that require large movements and come closer for smaller gifts and smaller movements.

Walking exercise


• Illustrates the art of creative leadership.
• Practices giving and taking control.
• Practices awareness and focus.
• Practices collaboration.


Participants walk around in the space. In the first round everyone stops and starts walking when the facilitator claps their hands. In the last round everyone stops and starts at the same time without the facilitator clapping their hands.

15 min

Number of participants: 6 – 50

Game flow:

Have the participants walk around the space spreading them evenly across the floor. Tell them to stop when you clap your hands and to start walking when you clap again. Do this for a while varying the intervals. Then tell the participants that they have to do exactly the same thing, walking and stopping at the same time without you clapping your hands.


It is important that the participants do not talk during the exercise.

Debrief questions:

• What was interesting about the exercise?
• What was different between the first and second round?
• Who was in control in the first and second round?
• Which round did they enjoy the most?
• What does this game reveal about leadership?

Mirror mirror


• Illustrates the art of creative leadership.
• Practices giving and taking control.
• Practices awareness and focus.
• Practices collaboration.


In pairs participants mirror each other’s movement. First only one player leads while the other follows. In the last round they give and take control.

Time: 15 min

Number of participants: 2 – thousands (You’ll just need a stage and a sound system so that everyone can hear and see you)

Game flow:

Ask everyone to pair up with another person and stand facing each other. Each pair should decide who will be A and who will be B. Tell them that A is a person looking into a mirror and B is the mirror. B should therefore copy A’s exact movement. After a few minutes tell them to switch. A is therefore now the mirror and B the person looking into the mirror. After B has had a chance to lead for a few minutes, tell them that they have to now both lead and follow at the same time. They are therefore both looking into the mirror and being the mirror simultaneously. Now it gets really interesting. For it to work both need to take the lead and give up the lead, give and taking control the whole time. If the participants trust each other and are completely present in the moment they will go into a state of flow in which control will dissolve.


The idea is not that the participants should try and outwit each other by making sudden movements. The idea is that they work together and move like they are one so that an observer wouldn’t be able to see who is leading and who is following.

It works best if the participants make smooth movements, not quick jerky movements.

Request that participants do the exercise in complete silence.

Debrief questions:

• What was interesting about the exercise?
• What was easier, leading, following or doing both?
• Which one did you enjoy most?
• Which one was the most creative?
• How does this apply to leadership?

Circus bow


• Illustrates the improv practise of accepting mistakes.
• Building trust
• Encourages risk taking and creating a safe climate.


In a circle participants each get a chance to step forward, say “I failed” and bow.  After each bow the rest of the participants give a warm round of applause.

Time: 10 min

Number of participants: Any (for larger groups, or where participants seem cautious and tense , divide them in smaller circles or in pairs)

Game flow:

Have the participants stand in a circle.  Tell them that everyone will get the chance to step forward into the circle, then say anything in the line of “I made a mistake” or “I failed” and then give a big bow.  The rest of the group then give a round of applause.


If the group is very comfortable with each other let them share a real mistake or failure.   When sharing is personal and authentic it paves the way to vulnerability and this enhances experiences immensely.

This exercise is called circus bow, because whenever a trapeze artist makes a mistake and falls down into the net, he will make a summersault out of the net and bow towards the audience as if that was exactly what was supposed to happen.

This exercise may seem silly in writing, but try it and see what surprising results you get.  Remember in order to be brilliant you have to risk being foolish.

Debrief questions:

• How did it make you feel being applauded for stating that you made a mistake?
• How did it feel to applaud the others?
• What can we learn from this exercise?
• How can we help each other to feel safe to take risks?