Monday, October 27, 2008

Improv Problem-Solving

Imagine this: You're in the kitchen making dinner and your four-year-old son throws a kitchen utensil at you and screams, "I HATE YOU!" Quick. What do you do? (The projectile missed you, by the way, so no first aid needed.)

This happened to a friend of mine. She was going through a divorce and her son wasn't taking it so well. Most of us in this situation would yell and send the kid to his room for a time-out. In earlier times, that kid would have been spanked until his bottom was blue.

But it so happens that my friend does improv comedy for a living. When she found herself facing off against her little ball of anger, she didn't go with the common response. Instead, she turned to her improv skills. She asked herself, "What do I have? What do I need?"

What she had was an incredibly tense situation with a frightened, angry little boy. What she needed was to remove the tension and fear so she could reassure her son that he was loved. She needed to get beyond the behavior and deal with the cause of the behavior.

So she fell down dead. She grabbed her stomach and theatrically reeled around the room gasping for breath and then collapsed on the floor. The heaviness in the room dissolved, her son laughed, and they were able to talk through what had happened.

I've never forgotten this story my friend told me. I use this improv technique myself now.

When I was told after my lung biopsy that it was indeed cancer in my lungs and not an infection, I saw the fear and sadness in Tony's and my friend Michelle's eyes. I asked myself, "What do I have? What do I need?" I had two of the people I loved most in the world scared out of their wits, thinking they were going to lose me. I needed to take the fear and heaviness out of that room. So I cracked a joke and made them laugh. The world seemed right again. We could still laugh.

When Toby throws a tantrum because I won't take him swimming, I ask myself, "What do I have? A little boy who's angry that his mommy can't play with him like she used to. What does he need? Reassurance that his mommy can still do things with him and pay attention to him." So instead of yelling at him, I take him to his room and read books with him - something quiet and physically less strenuous that I can do and that makes Toby feel he has me all to himself.

I recommend you try this yourself. Next time you're faced with a tense, crisis-like situation, stop for a minute and ask yourself, "What do I have? What do I need?" A little improv could improve the way you deal with a crisis.


C N Weys said...

Luverly to see you here again Shin!

And even more luverly to learn more of your brilliant ways of disarming and diffusing the tensions with good humor, good cheer, and good intellect.

"What do I have? What do I need?"

I shall remember that in the morn. And put it to very good use.

Ah yes my smiling 'sister', I have once again returned (via Firefox & Google with health/cancer filters) to visit you with hopes you will impart a jewel or some other nugget of wisdom for me to thumb in my pocket at tomorrow's appointment. And. Ah yes, my fellow year of the Horse gilded one, you have done it again.

Tomorrow's fills me with mixed feelings and a confusion of emotions. Tomorrow will be the 28th of October here in Florida. It will also be one week away from election Tuesday. Tomorrow will mark my second dose of a new treatment (protein based chemo/Abraxane). Last week marked the end of my remission and the return of my cancer in the form of a lymph node tumor upon my sternum. And tomorrow, my father has said he wants to take me to the clinic and accompany whilst I receive my chemo.

I represent the 3rd cancer in his family: his mother died of lung; he is now a 3-year survivor of prostate; and me - his 42-yr old single, childless, adolt 'baby'. He's taking me complete with his filled to the gills swirl of competing emotions, urges, and feelings.

Even though I have been going to the chemo lab for just over a year to receive other treatments, this is the first course of chemo I've ever received. I'm the first 'walk through chemo' on any level for my dad as well. Despite successfully beating his own cancer. And despite having helped his mother survive more 25-years after her first battle with lung cancer before it came back - vigilant. Despite all my dad's valiant 1st hand experience with cancer treatment, caring for me as I receive my 2nd dose of chemo will be his first contact.

Call me pessimistic if you must, but I can't shake the feeling that the car ride to the chemo clinic, and the clinic itself, will become an improve comedy needing incredible tense situation. I don't imagine projectile objects nor epitaphs. But already I feel the presence of a very frightened angry little child. Strike that. Two very frightened agry little children trapped in the guise of adult daughter/father relations.

We adore each other. We care for each without hesitation. We turn to each other for advice regarding the other's area of expertise.

But in the end, we are still parent and child. More specifically we are a retired 30-yr military father, steeped in EurAsian traditional order and discipline, who is going to be waking up and making sure that I, (his 42-yr old well accomplished health advocate and former 10-year professional with the American Cancer Society) am washed, brushed, presentable and fed before he drives me in his car, along his favourtie route, to my clinic, in good time to ensure we are there early 'so the doctor' won't have to wait....


Am I making too much of things? Or might you begin to see how my adult parent/child dichotomy is a mirror to the one you detailed in a 4-yr olds kitchen?

I feel the tremors of one of these potential minor dilemas and I will now have to ask myself "What do I have?"

What do I have? - I have a father. A father how loves me. Beyond measure. Who believes this is wrong. That it should be him, before me - if me at all. A father who bows his head so he may pray and ask that his place be switched with me. My father is a man, on a tightly fixed income with the prettiest girl in the world, his wife of 43-yrs, depending on him to ensure their comfort and safety through hopefully another 40+ years. And yet he takes his chronically ill, jobless and disabled adult child into his home and to her chemo treatment. The 2nd treatment ever in both their lives.

What was saying again? Oh yeah. I was about to say Thank you Shin. Once again you got me back on track.

I don't have an incredibly tense situation to diffuse with your suggested improv skills.

I have a father who loves me to distraction and whe's taking me to life-saving treatment tomorrow morning.

And who knows, maybe along the way, he may once again teach his full of her own game adult daughter a new thing to two.

Wishing you a week filled with good laughter -with or without the improv- and a home bouncing with the waves of great parent/child exchanges and loving. You know - more of what we both already embrace in place of cancer pain.

Cheers my good sister in the fight. I will you beauty and wellness.

Until next time

Shin said...

C N Weys,

It looks like you have a lot swirling around in your head and heart. Good thing you and your father have each other.

The improv thing wasn't my idea, by the way. That was my friend's idea. I have clever friends. Sounds like you have a clever family.

Good luck to you. Chemo Club is not so bad. If you get the right mix of folks, you could even turn it into a party. Take some fun stuff with you - snacks, drinks, games to play with your Dad, cards, movies and DVD player, music player. Whatever will get you through it.

I usually just sleep through the whole thing, but some people can't settle down enough to sleep so they need distractions. So it's a good thing your Dad will be there with you. You'll do just fine.

wei. said...

hi there! i saw ur blog on the tv by accident and decided to drop by. u r very brave. despite the difficulties u r facing...... keep it up shin. some times i feel ashamed as a normal human. thanks for the inspiration. =)

Shin said...


You saw my blog on TV? There will be a documentary about me and my blog, but that doesn't air until November 4.

How did you see that already?

yy-anon said...

i like this post a lot. cos i realise, being a mum, there are alot of these moments when the first reaction when my child makes me mad, is to scream at her. but everytime i manage to catch myself and do something different that makes us all happy, i feel really satisfied after tht. :)

wei. said...

that's easy. the synopsis! i dunno if i spelt it correctly. i was watching this te xie( the documentry)when they played the sypnosis. so i had a glance of it and i saw ur name on it. i googled it and i found it! ahahaha!!!! hang in there gal! ahahaha.... =)

Rosalind Ng said...

hey shin,
It's been a while since I left a comment. I'm still here!! :)
Wow, this post is powerful.
I'll try to remember & use this method. I'm normally calm but all hell breaks loose when I'm faced with crisis. I'm not a confrontational sort, & would just shut up & be a doormat until the pressure builds up too much, then I will say something I regret later. Been there Done that.
But now I have this method to get over tensions.
I have hope! :) Thank you!

Shin said...


I know what you mean. There's nothing like the satisfaction I feel when I face off against my kids and I actually act like the grown-up! I almost feel like I should be giving myself a sticker! ; )

Anonymous said...

Hi Shin,

Can you provide the details of the documentary that is being aired? I would quite like to watch it.


Shin said...


Good to hear from you. I'm afraid I can't take credit for this idea - it was my friend's. But I'm happy to know you can make some use of it!

Shin said...


Thanks for your interest in the documentary. It will air next Tuesday, November 4 at 10:30 p.m. on Channel 8.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shin,
Thanks. Channel 8 - is it a Chinese language documentary?


Shin said...


I don't speak Chinese, nor do my family and friends. So it will be in English with Chinese subtitles.

Alison Lester said...

Ooh Shin! I love how you're passing this story and this approach along. Improv is the way forward. Always has been.

Improv and battery-powered wheels, that is. One tiny recommendation: make sure those caterpillars will fit in the aisle of your favorite supermarket before you buy!

I can imagine lots of family fun once you've got it!

Lots and lots and lots and lots of love,

Tut Tut said...

Hi Shin,

This is the first time I'm reading your blog. I can't hold back my tears. I am particularly interested in reading your blog because my mother was a cancer patient. She left me when I was 3.

After reading your blog, I suppose I had a better understanding of what my mum went through back then.

I particularly liked this post - it's very motivational. I teach students with learning difficulties, and at times, I'm really lost as to what I can do and how I can help them. I always ask myself, how can I help? And I'm always quite demoralized when all my methods fail and I wind up angry with myself. I am going to try what you mentioned in this post.

I'm really touched by your optimism and courage.
God Bless! I will pray for you.

Tris said...

Hi Shin.

From your story on TV yesterday, I learned that there is nothing we need to be afraid of, even in the worst situations. Your cheerfulness and bravery really left a deep impression on me. I really learned a lot from you. You are a beautiful teacher. God bless you. : )