by Jon Trevor
I recently led an Applied Improvisation session for a group of 20 GPs-in-training** This was not my first contact with Medics. I have been involved in Communication Skills training for medical staff on and off for years, from students right through to Consultants**.
My experience has been that new 1st year students usually demonstrate excellent rapport, empathy and listening skills, but by the time they qualify, this facility has noticeably diminished if not disappeared. It’s not hard to fathom the reason – as students starting out, they have nothing to rely on but a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy, and huge desire to help. Five years later, they have a head crammed with knowledge, information and jargon. Whenever a patient starts to present a problem, they automatically begin consulting this database of symptoms, treatments and protocols. In Improv we call this “being in your head” because as soon as your attention turns inwards, you are no longer listening to and seeing with proper awareness what is around you, you are cut off from being genuinely present and in contact with others.
And that’s not the only issue facing an Applied Improv practitioner working with Doctors. With the “prime directive” of “Do No Harm” etched into their consciousness, and a work environment where even a tiny error can have monumental consequences, it becomes second nature to medics to be careful, thoughtful, and extremely risk-averse. So given that Applied Improvisation is all about not thinking, going with the flow, accepting random choices, and making mistakes with joy and abandon, you can imagine how apprehensive I was about their reaction. In fact, the results were nothing short of delightful. This room of serious, studious doctors responded as pretty much everyone does to these sessions – they played with glee and delight, and created some fabulous and inventive moments.
More importantly, they absolutely got the value of the work we did. They understood I was not encouraging them to be careless, frivolous or negligent of outcomes. I was simply reminding them of the necessity of remaining truly open to whatever was unfolding in front of them, and to be willing accept the possibilities offered by new ideas. And that’s why I am so delighted that they really made the connection between the games we played, and the skills of listening, attending, accepting, responding with awareness, and sensitive teamwork and collaborative leadership that would be so useful to them in clinical practice.
As one participant put it – “As GPs we need to spend more time listening to patients, and responding and acting on their words, as opposed to using our own words”.
Practicing the”Failure Bow” is one of the principles of improv I describe in my brief youtube below!