Optimizing Outcomes and Approaching Change Differently This Year Through Medical Improv

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Social and emotional learning, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills are often referred to as “soft” skills. This skill set encompasses human behavior and as such, informs the quality of our communication, relationships, teamwork and leadership.  These in turn, inform our workplace cultures and healthcare system(s) and provide feedback on the skills themselves.  Healthy skills and relationships contribute to healthy cultures. Healthy cultures support healthy skills and relationships.  And when skills, relationships, and/or cultures are not healthy, it can be a destructive cycle.

As discussed in this recent post, Emotional Intelligence & Interpersonal Skills are Underlying Causes of Key Issues there are important links to persistent and pervasive problems such as sentinel events, poor patient experience, and physical and psychological harm to the workforce.  Looking at these issues as symptoms of underlying problems with ‘soft’ skills invites us to shift our thinking toward solutions that support behavioral change.

Because emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are behavioral rather than intellectual in nature, they require a different approach to mastery than methods used for imparting clinical-based knowledge.  Memorizing a definition of self-esteem or watching a video of a nurse being assertive or physician listening can be helpful steps in teaching, but don’t get at the core of individual human experience where emotional growth can take place.

Further, if we acknowledge that new behaviors often involve psychological risk of giving up and/or taking on more power, i.e. listening requires us to share accountability while speaking up requires more ownership, we can appreciate how difficult this work can be, especially in our high stakes, high stress work environments.

Medical Improv: An Experiential Teaching Method for Building Essential Skills

Although definitions vary from practitioners, it is generally accepted that medical improv is incredibly effective in developing critical ‘soft’ skills!  Expertise should also include experience in improvisation, facilitation, and healthcare or a collaboration that brings all of these skills to the table.  Professor Katie Watson and Dr. Belinda Fu have spearheaded a ‘Train-the-Trainer’ program that will celebrate its fourth year this spring at Northwestern University, Feinstein School of Medicine.

Once a few principles of improv are explained there are a wide variety of activities that can be “played” to promote these interactive skills while building healthy relationships and decreasing stress.  The serious play involved in facilitated activities allows each individual to learn where his or her growing edges are while providing psychologically-safe opportunities for practice.

How It Can Help

This experiential teaching method presents core human development opportunities as participants practice and feel:

  • What it is like to be heard (or not heard) and to be validated (or invalidated)
  • The hesitation that occurs before sharing an idea or concern
  • The impulses involved in talking over another i.e. not listening
  • What it is like to lead and to follow and which is more comfortable
  • To be supportive or supported by others
  • What it is like to be of high or low status

As participants become more aware of their own behavior in this less threatening environment, they are ready for practicing new behaviors in class and over time in the real world and with their coworkers!    The exciting new behaviors are grounded in empathy, ownership, trust and respect which naturally lead to better communication, productive conflict, healthier relationships, safe cultures, and improved outcomes. The activities are a lot of fun and there are great additional benefits like decreasing stress, enhancing spontaneity, creativity, flexibility and there are progressively more complex games awaiting those who especially enjoy the process.

In short, medical improv offers much promise for all of us in healthcare.  Have you ever taken an improv class or watched improv comedy?  Can you imagine what it might be like when the emphasis on performing is replaced with an emphasis on learning ‘soft’ skills?  And how vital this is for patients, families, and healthcare professionals?

Want to learn more about Medical Improv? Check out videos and podcasts here.

Beth Boynton, RN, MS, author of Successful Nurse Communication:  Safe Care, Healthy Workplaces, & Rewarding Careers is a speaker and medical improv trainer.  More information about her work can be found on her website and she can be contacted at beth@bethboynton.com.

About the Author
Beth Boynton

Beth Boynton

Beth Boynton, RN, MS, author of Successful Nurse Communication: Safe Care, Healthy Workplaces, & Rewarding Careers is a speaker and medical improv trainer. More information about her work can be found on her website and she can be contacted at beth@bethboynton.com. Find more of her stories at Confident Voices in Healthcare.


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