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January 18, 2017

A Medical Improv Activity: Breaking Tension & Improving Communication

By Beth Boynton, RN, MS    

Happy New Year! 2017 is ringing in with all sorts of possible changes in healthcare and nursing. Whether you are excited or worried or both, the uncertainty can contribute to tension and stress.

Nevertheless, working together to provide safe, compassionate care is a top priority for all members of the multidisciplinary team; this requires effective, respectful, and efficient communication even in the midst of almost constant change. Easier said than done, right? After all, we all know by now that communication problems are persistent root causes of errors, occupational injuries, and poor patient experience for nurses and others.

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A Cutting Edge Approach to Improving Communication

I’ve been teaching and writing about healthcare communication and related topics for over a decade, and more recently I’ve been pioneering work in Medical Improv, which is a fun, new, and effective way to build interpersonal skills and create healthy workplace cultures. There are literally hundreds of activities from theater improvisation that can be adapted to meet the unique needs of healthcare professionals.

In a recent workshop at Rutgers University Medical School, I taught an activity called Physical Phone with help from second-year medical students, Peter Rezkalla and Jessica Tu. I was worried that we were running out of time, but the group of about thirty students, staff, and faculty were having so much fun we extended the workshop for 15 minutes. If you are a positive change agent, I want to help you try an activity in your workplace.

Physical Phone will give your team a chance to laugh together while pointing out some of the challenges we all face in communicating effectively; you’ll need 10 or more people, 15-20 minutes of time, and space to move around and laugh loudly!

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Teaching Physical Phone

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

Here are some step-by-step instructions I’ve adapted for you:

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’s 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, signaling that person to turn around and face the end- person. The end-person then shows their three distinct gestures.

4. The end-person shows the second-to-last 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.

Both the first and last individuals stand next to each other and face the audience and count to three; that’s when both people simultaneously demonstrate what the gestures are as they understand them.

8. Once people have done this exercise once, it becomes super easy and hilarious to watch. 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 all contribute to the transmission of information. But don’t worry, sometimes simply having fun together is just what teams need in order to communicate more effectively and respectfully; and once you know how to do it, you can do it again in even less time.

This enjoyable, non-threatening team-building activity is a great way to finish a meeting or welcome new nurses to the team. Please let me know how it goes or what other ideas come from trying it out!

Next Up: 3 Ways Better Communication Leads To Better Scheduling

Beth Boynton, RN, MS specializes in communication, collaboration, and workplace culture. She is a Medical Improv Practitioner and author of Confident Voices (CreateSpace 2009) and Successful Nurse Communication (F.A. Davis 2015).

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