A Synchrony - A Chance Meeting with Improv
In 1992, I graduated from law school and moved to Los Angeles. My first job after graduation was as an administrator of a student health clinic in West LA- an opportunity that blended my nursing background and legal skills nicely. With a few years of experience working as a critical care nurse and my newly acquired legal training, I was well positioned to be an expert 'problem-solver.'
One day Emma, our office manager, came in with a copy of Variety, the entertainment trade paper, and suggested that I sign up for improvisation classes- because as she said, "you are really funny and you should be performing on stage." Clearly my leadership attributes were not taking hold in the way I had anticipated.
I didn't know what improvisation was at that time and given I was a science geek in school with a side interest in health policy and the law, it seemed like a stretch to jump into performing, particularly in a town that takes entertainment pretty seriously. Curious to learn more, I went to the introductory session, listened to the pitch, and decided to take in the house troupe's performance that night for free. My life was changed instantly by the magic that I saw on stage as I watched the Second City alumni seamlessly weave together an entire show with no script. I signed up for classes on the spot and began performing in various venues around LA.
In what I thought was an unrelated interest, I enrolled in a basic mediation training course through the LA County Bar Association not long after my first few weeks of improvisation training had begun. I was asked to bring back and teach my colleagues at work what I learned in mediation training and it struck me that the skills for sitting with conflict where the same as were needed in improvisation-
- noticing offers and building on them (yes...and);
- making the other person look good;
- listening fully;
- being present; and
- moving toward an outcome together.
I decided to use the improvisation games I was learning to teach conflict skills to a small group. Although I had an intuitive sense that the two fit together, I can say that after training over 10,000 healthcare and legal professionals using improvisation over the past 20 years, I have become much more clear about how improvisation is so much more than a training technique, performance vehicle or type of comedy. It is a mindset.
An Improvisational Mind
"In present time a path is opened to your intuition, closing the gap between thinking and doing, allowing you, the real you, your natural self, to emerge and experience directly, to be present in the moment."
Now more than ever, the ability to be open, adaptive, and perceptive is needed as a means of navigating complex environments- particularly in healthcare where paradigms are shifting faster than icebergs are melting. Growing the mindsets that enable individuals to engage from a place of curiosity rather than certainty; to inquire and be vulnerable rather than give opinions and defend positions; to create connection with others on the spot while accepting and building on competing demands is the essence of interprofessional collaboration.
An improvisational mindset is also necessary for balancing out the 'pathologic problem-solving' skill set that has been over developed and over emphasized in professional training. The critical thinking mindset interrupts the ability to innovate, create, disrupt, and re-imagine new habits or ways of work that are in need of nurturing. It is the growth mindset that enables us to, as Peter Sims says, "problem-seek" rather than "problem-solve" in order to be adaptive and work toward solutions collectively. It is the improvisation mindset that tries on, fails, learns, fails, tries again and finds joy in the process.
The video below featuring Alan Alda is a a beautiful example of how we can begin to grow the intuitive, open and creative aspects of ourselves, even in the midst of training our science brains. It is one of a number of different ways that improvisation is being applied in settings outside of the world of professional performers.
Over the next several weeks, I will feature emerging applications of improvisation in the areas of healthcare, patient safety, conflict engagement, and innovation. I will also share techniques and methods you can use with your own group- so stay tuned!
Until next time...