Using Improv to Improve Public Health

by Jay Maddock, PhD

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of co-leading a workshop on using improvisational (improv) comedy to improve collaboration and generate creative solutions at the Active Living Research annual meeting. I will admit that when my colleague Jana Hirsch from Drexel University approached me with this concept last summer, I thought she had flipped her lid. I was even more surprised when the conference accepted the abstract. My experience with improv prior to this was going to a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade and watching several episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway. I knew that we would have fun in the workshop, but would we actually learn anything?

I started my preparation for the session by scanning the internet on the fundamentals of improv. I found a great interview of Tina Fey at Inside the Actors Studio. In it, she distilled the basic tenets of improv. The first is to agree to every statement no matter how ridiculous. This is the “yes” part of improv. It made me think of how often we say no to ideas before fully thinking them through. When ideas are truly out of the box, it is hard to embrace them immediately. Our first inclination is usually, “That is not going to work.” What would happen if we embraced our colleagues’ ideas more often, not always saying yes but at least thinking twice before saying no? The second tenant is to agree and then add something. This is the “yes and” component. Here we add something to the conversation to move it forward. There are several important lessons here. The first is active listening. What exactly did your partner say? The next is creativity. How can we move this forward and keep it interesting? I have been in meetings many times where people are obviously not listening, and when they speak, it does not move the conversation forward. If we can improve our ability to be active listeners and to think creatively, our meetings and group activities would surely work better. The final principle is there are no mistakes. Whatever you say works and you go with it. This is an incredibly freeing principle. People are often afraid to say something because they do not want to be wrong. This stifles a lot of good ideas and a lot of creativity when people want to say the safe thing. These principles certainly sounded good, but would they work in real life?

Finally, the day of our workshop came. Jana and I were joined by Steve Mooney to facilitate the 16 intrepid attendees. I’m pleased to report that it went stunningly well. We started with warm-up games to learn each other’s names. The game involved developing silly names and hand movements and then calling out someone else’s name and walking towards them. The person that was approached had to call someone else’s name before the first person got to them. I don’t think I’ll ever forget Hat Trick Patrick, Watermelon Will, or Casserole Cassandra. As we continued to play a variety of games, everyone started bonding and making connections. Being willing to be silly in front of each other and take risks without fear of failure created a safe space for group cohesion. There was also no hierarchy. Jim Sallis, the founder of Active Living Research, was on equal footing with the graduate students in the group. We left the session knowing everyone in the group on a different level and many of us ended up spending time together with new friends throughout the conference.

What does this mean to us working in public health? So much of our work is meeting and group process oriented. We work in universities and health departments, with other agencies, and in communities. Many times, we work for years with the same people and barely know them on a personal level. Improv provides a technique to create group connectedness, remove hierarchies, improve active listening, and promote creativity. It is also really fun. If you’re interested in getting started, the improv encyclopedia has lots of tools to get started. Try it. You will be glad you did!

Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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