De-Stress and Improve Communication with Medical Improv

By Beth BoyntonVoices From The FieldLeave a Comment

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One of the main differences between improv comedy and medical improv is how instructors use the activity.  As a communication specialist and medical improv practitioner, I’m always looking for ways to bridge activities from improv that can teach important skills. Since the holidays can be filled with stress related to high-stakes pressures of nursing work, not to mention personal and political tensions, it seems like a great time to pull together teams to do something that will help people connect and laugh.

Chances are, there’s a holiday party planned for your unit or department. Here’s a fun idea to tie in some important points about communication in healthcare.  In a recent workshop at Rutgers Medical School, I tried this activity called Physical Phone.  I was worried that we were running out of time, but the group of students and faculty were having so much fun we extended the workshop for 15 minutes.

One way to teach the activity is to show everyone the Transitions Global YouTube video and then lead it.

Here are some step-by-step instructions I’ve adapted to play:

  1. Have about 10 people line up single file facing a wall.  Once people get used to playing you can make the line bigger. The others in the group should be able to see a side view of everyone in the line.
  2. Tell everyone this is a nonverbal activity and it is okay to laugh!
  3. Explain that the person at the end of the line will think of three distinct physical gestures and remember them.  This person taps the person in front of them on the shoulder which signals that person to turn around and face the end person.  The end person shows their three distinct gestures.
  4. The end person shows the second to the end person the gestures only once.
  5. Once the end-person has ‘communicated’ the gestures they can come around to the front and watch the activity proceed.
  6. The second-to-last person now taps on the person in front of them and demonstrates the three gestures as best they can remember.  Once done they can come around front as the people in line go through the process one by one.
  7. Once the first person in line receives the nonverbal message, the original end person joins him or her up front.
  8. Both the first and last people stand next to each other and face the audience.  You count to three. That’s when both people demonstrate what the gestures are at the same time.

Once people have done it once, it becomes super easy and hilarious to watch.  And sometimes a few words in between rounds is all it takes to make essential points about communication.  I do this by facilitating brief discussions that focus on the complexity of communication, nonverbal language, errors associated with handoffs, and/or how we are all contributing to the transmission of information. But don’t worry; sometimes just having fun together is just what teams need to communicate more effectively and respectfully.

What other ways are you using unique activities to help spark greater communication among teams?

About the Author
Beth Boynton

Beth Boynton

Beth Boynton, RN, MS specializes in communication, collaboration, and workplace culture. She is a Medical Improv Practitioner and author of Medial Improv: A New Way to Improve Communication (CreateSpace 2017), Successful Nurse Communication (F.A. Davis 2015), and Confident Voices (CreateSpace 2009). Find more of her stories at Confident Voices in Healthcare.


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