This Simple Activity from Medical Improv Can be Used to Develop Empathy

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Daniel Goleman, the psychologist well-known for bringing the term emotional intelligence into mainstream culture with his ground-breaking book, Emotional Intelligence:  Why It Can Matter More than IQ describes empathy as an important component of social competence. In a more recent article, he describes empathy as a component of effective leadership stating the importance of understanding others’ feelings and points of view.  

Empathy and relationships

Ultimately, empathy is important for building healthy relationships of all kinds, including professional ones with colleagues and therapeutic ones with patients.  It is closely tied to attentive listening where the focus is on the other person.   

Remember only 10-20% of our communication is attributed to the actual words we exchange!  

An empathic person is taking in all sorts of the other 80-90% of information in any given relationship. A nurse with a high degree of empathy has an invisible radar that interprets facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.  She may be the one on the unit who notes the early signs of a patient’s escalating anger or a colleague’s signs of irritability.  This nurse can be a real asset to the team because he may help prevent a workplace violence incident or get help for a peer who is developing burnout.  

Nurses vary with their ability to start an IV in an elderly dehydrated patient or accurately assess subtle lung sounds before a fluid overload crisis, right? We also vary in our ability to show and feel empathy.   That’s Okay because just like practicing clinical skills, empathy can be developed too!

Many exercises come from the emerging field of Medical Improv where theater activities are used to build emotional intelligence and communication skills. For instance, one activity involves synchronized storytelling aka same-time-story, where two people try to tell the same story at the same time.

How to play synchronized storytelling

This activity requires working in pairs, where one person tells a story while the other acts as a mirror and tries to tell it at the same time. So if I say, ‘Once upon a time,’ the idea is that my partner is going to say that at the same time that I am. It’s a little slow at first, and what happens is the person following the storyteller becomes intently focused on that person. Because the activity requires almost 100% attention on another person in a safe and fun way, there is a natural opportunity to develop empathy.  

If you decide to try it with a colleague, make sure you both have a chance to play both roles and notice:

  • Whether you are thinking of anything besides the person telling the story.
  • What hints you get from the storyteller that don’t involve words.
  • How the activity impacts your relationship with your partner.
  • What is easy and comfortable for you versus what is unfamiliar.

You can see how it is done in the brief video below with improv students, Glenna Kimball and Jody Fuller at the PILL-Portsmouth Improv Learning Lab!


While this activity and these concepts may seem outside the scope of clinical communication, they open the door to developing awareness and skills associated with empathy.  They also create opportunities to discuss the value of the skillset and when and where it can help in your work as a nurse.  


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