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May 2019

Improv, empathy and design thinking: getting to the heart of the need

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Shaping the future of learning

By Todd Neuman, Content Writer at Kineo

Design Thinking has been a hot topic in the learning industry for several years. MIT defines design thinking as “a powerful process of problem solving that begins with understanding unmet customer needs. From that insight emerges a process for innovation that encompasses concept development, applied creativity, prototyping, and experimentation.” 

This iterative design approach is driven by understanding learner needs and focuses on finding creative solutions to specific learner challenges. Effective design thinking is driven by empathy.

How to become empathetic

Empathy requires being able to accurately interpret what another person is experiencing or feeling and connecting at an emotional level. We all know people who seem naturally empathetic, and others who are less so. But, is empathy a skill that one can develop? Can it be taught? Let’s look at three of the biggest hurdles to being empathetic:

  1. Bad listening habits
  2. Having a competing agenda
  3. Being uncomfortable with emotion

While all three represent significant issues, there is a way that anyone can overcome all three – Improv exercises.

Improv to the rescue

As I discussed in a previous article, one bed rock principle of improv is to show agreement through the phrase “yes, and.” In improv you must take whatever information your scene partner gives you, accept it and then add something to it. If a scene partner accuses you of stealing her pants, you must take that fact as gospel. You might say “Yes, I did, and I gave them to my girlfriend.” Now you have an interesting scene. If your response is “no. I didn’t”, the scene and the fun grind to a halt. But to effectively “yes, and” something, you need to be listening intently to make sure you heard the last thing that was said. Practicing “Yes and” means practicing listening.

Improv exercises also prevent you from getting carried away with your own agenda. Your scene might take place on the moon, and you may have the best one-liner about “one small step” in your head.

You are certain it will get a big laugh. Suddenly, your scene partner spots a sheep on the moon. Improv requires you to run away from your preconceived idea and say “yes, and” to that sheep. “Yes and”, forces you out of your head and into someone else’s world.

Finally, improv exercises are a safe way to get comfortable with showing emotion. Improv pushes you to react to your partner’s emotions. If they get hysterical, you get hysterical. Or you can choose to play the opposite emotion. If your partner is crying at a funeral, you may choose to laugh hysterically.

The power of improv in learning design

At Kineo, we’ve become adept at using the “yes, and” philosophy. From our initial design workshops, to lessons learned in meetings, and everywhere in between, it has enabled us to help our clients think outside the boundaries of traditional learning strategies to quickly identify solutions they never thought existed and get to the heart of their learner’s needs.

As I suggested in my previous blog “Can Improv Impact Learning Design? Yes, and”, using improv techniques will make you a more collaborative team player; nurture creativity; and allow the development of fresh approaches. Using improv to develop empathy, will help you to be more intuitive, innovative and ultimately, more successful in your job. And, because it's improv, it will make you more fun to work with.

If you are looking for a way to nurture empathy in your team, and have a great time doing it, you can turn to improv exercises to help get the job done. There are multiple resources online, in book stores—yes, they still exist—and almost every improv theatre has a department that specializes in corporate skill development. I suggest a few exercises below. Enjoy.

Improv exercises

Listening exercise: One at a time

Have two people stand facing each other. The first player will begin a conversation with a one sentence statement. (No questions allowed.) You can prompt the first line if you need. (E.g. My dog ran away. It looks like rain. Your goat ate my sandwich). The second player then responds with a one sentence statement. The trick is that the second player must start his or her sentence with the last word the first player said. The first player then responds to the second player beginning his sentence with the last word the second player said. The exercise prevents each player from thinking ahead and forces them to listen till the very end of what his partner has said.


1: It looks like rain.

2: Rain, it looks like a storm.

1: Storm… that was your nickname in college.

2: College… that sure was a good time.

1: Time sure goes by fast.

Emotions exercise: Call out

Have two or three people on stage. Give one short line of dialogue for every player. They will repeat the same lines over and over during the exercise. This exercise is not about creating lines of dialogue but using the same dialogue with different emotions. Have the players just run through their lines with a normal inflection a couple of times so they can get used to them. Then the moderator will call out an emotion. (e.g. fear, joy, anger, sad, paranoid). All the players then repeat the same lines in the called-out emotion. Then the moderator will call out another emotion, etc. This exercise helps players practice mirroring emotions and demonstrates that it’s important not just what you say, but how you say it.



1: I can’t remember where we parked.

2: I knew this going to happen

3: Things will never be the same


Agreement and Listening exercise: Yes, and.

Have players pair off. Player one will make a simple statement. Player two must respond in agreement with “yes, and” and then adding something with a simple statement of his or her own. No questions are allowed and the word “but” cannot be said. The first player then agrees with the second player’s statement and adds more information. See which pair can go back and forth the longest adding something new without disagreement, asking a question, or saying “but.”

*Tip- It always makes an interaction more interesting to have the players name each other.



1: Mom, I just went to the grocery store.

2: Yes, I see Kevin. You bought my favorite cookies.

1: Yes, I did, I knew you hadn’t had them in a while.

2: Yes, that’s true. That means you’re up to something.

1: Yes, well, I would like to borrow the car.

2: Yes, you would. There’s a dance at school tonight.

1: Yes, there is, and I really want to take Katie.



Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.