#Blogtober: Laughing matters - What the principles of improvisation can teach us about compassion

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By Ryan Offutt

#Blogtober Day: Saturday 11 – Sunday 12 October

Compassion starts with empathy, and then goes beyond – it leads to skilled action and a genuine emotional response to another’s suffering. Organisationally, it’s not enough to tell people to ‘be more compassionate’, and worse still to say ‘we’ll be measuring it.’  Authentic compassion comes from within.

As a work psychologist and improvisational comedy coach, I have had the privilege of working with incredibly talented and passionate people in both healthcare and comedy. On the surface, the two worlds would appear to have nothing in common. However, I have discovered that the foundations of compassionate care and hilarious improvised comedy are more similar than you might think.

Great carers and great comedic improvisers need the same foundation to perform their crafts; full attention, deep listening, being completely in-the-moment with others, accepting-and-adding to conversation, and adaptability.

Healthcare providers improvise every day, and every patient interaction demands an element of improvisation. Patient consultations have no scripts.  Within healthcare, improvisation is an overlooked, fundamental interpersonal skill set that empowers medical professionals to deliver outstanding compassionate care.

The good news is that improvisation can be improved and developed through increased self-awareness and training in how we communicate and act when we have no script to follow.

Improvisation skills help increase capacity for empathy – deep listening

People often think that improv comedy is simply ‘being funny on the spot.’ The reality is that the best improvisers are great listeners.

Fantastic improvisers’ ability to listen completely allows them to genuinely and spontaneously respond to their fellow players. In comedy, what delights the audience is when they see genuine connections between actors on stage, not funny gags.

We have a rule in our improv comedy performance group – ‘no gagging.’  This means no making jokes that break ‘the reality of the scene.’ In that moment when you make a ‘gag,’ you stop responding to your fellow player, choosing your own agenda instead of collaborating with your acting partners. ‘Gagging,’ and pursuing your own agenda, kills the momentum of an improvised sketch in its tracks.

The same is true when providing compassionate care.  Before I begin my medical improv workshops, I ask participants if there have been times recently when they’ve asked questions to patients and then not heard at all what the patients’ response was – everyone puts their hands up, every time.

This is the healthcare equivalent of ‘gagging,’ or ‘killing the momentum’ of the consultation.  As we play improv games that emphasise deep listening, we increase individuals’ capacity to hear and increase their empathetic capacity. Improv helps people get ‘out of their own head,’ and focused on the person in front of them.

Instead of developing compassion from the outside-in, improv training helps people develop compassion from the inside-out, improving carers’ internal mindset for compassionate care. After all, there’s no ‘script’ for compassionate care – it’s always improvised.

Ryan Offutt is a work psychologist at Leeds University Business School, improvisational comedy coach, trainer and consultant. Ryan can be reached via email address. 

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