Why Empathy Is An Improviser’s Super Power
By Fernando A. Funes
Knowing how to read people’s emotions is amazing, and it’s what separates okay improvisers from the greats.
Being able to read my scene partner’s emotional state allows me to respond appropriately.
Unless my partner tells me what he wants me to do in a scene, or there was some type of premise generator (like a monologue) for us to have a shared bank of ideas to pull from, all I have is my ability to emotionally read my scene partner.
And this ability transfers over to real life too.
The other day I was at Target looking for heat pads for my low back pain.
I saw the store manager right at the entrance.
As I approached him, I saw him barking orders to two big security guards as they monitored the front registers of the store.
Obviously this wasn’t a good time to ask him for help. Maybe he was looking for a thief, or something had triggered him to that high level alertness.
Another cashier was in the area with a look of concern on her face.
Whatever was going on, the vibe he was giving out was for all the employees to be alert.
I don’t know if this is true; this is just the feeling I got from the situation, and it was all in a matter of seconds.
Not that anybody else could not read his agitated state. For me, it was just instant — there was no question that I had no business asking this guy for help.
It’s weird having this ability to read people’s emotions so quickly.
It’s almost like Spider-Man’s Spidey Sense. Spidey-Sense is Spider-Man’s warning system. It alerts him when danger is imminent and that he has to take immediate action if he’s going to avoid danger.
Spider-Man can sense when a car is being thrown at him by Dr. Octopus or whomever. His Spidey-Sense kicks in and he takes immediate action.
Although it begins automatic and unconscious, once he starts doing the action — dodging a car — he becomes conscious and aware of what’s going on, and he continues to avoid danger.
For improvisers, maybe our ability to read people’s emotions is our Spidey Sense — we’re able to read people’s current emotional states and we then know how to treat them.
We can read facial gestures, posture, and other physical cues to surmise how a person is feeling — and we can do it relatively fast (maybe even faster than the non-improviser?) and that’s what makes us above average in emotional intelligence.
I’m not saying other people can’t do this (empathy is easier for some than others); I’m just saying that improvisers have this trait honed and developed more than your average person.
And like Spider-Man, it’s not like an improviser can turn off their empathy. It’s active at all times of the day. Whether I’m at work, the grocery, or wherever, I can read people’s emotional states.
And if someone needs some empathy, and I can give it to them, I’ll do my best.
Sometimes someone is going through a shitty day and they just need someone to vent to. I’m down with that.
Sometimes, though, I can’t give the empathy they need because I’m in a rush, I have somewhere to be.
Or sometimes, I lack the patience to listen and not judge and just accept. Plus, I’m not a therapist.
But hey, when I can, I listen and I empathize. I don’t know if a lot of improvisers are this way.
Conclusion: empathy is a super power that improvisers have because of the demand of their art form.
It allows us to emotionally connect and understand what others are going through (to a certain extent), and because of that heightened ability, it’s one of the things that improvisers have that your non-improviser doesn’t have. It’s always nice to give empathy, but you can’t always give it.
Therefore, if you’re in a position where you can give it, do it because you’ll probably be helping someone out.
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Fernando A. Funes