This week I learned something very powerful and important about improv training from someone who’s done no improv training at all. Furthermore, I learned it from someone who’s been a part of my life for the last seven years and who I’d never really thought to have a deep conversation with on the topic. That person was my father-in-law.
My journey toward this moment started with a conversation I had with a terrific guy called Ari Hoffman. I’ve been learning from Ari about some groundbreaking work he was involved in to use improv training to teach his fellow medical students at UCSF. He had some profound things to say about the value of teamwork, and using the improv principle of ‘making your partner look good’ in a hospital setting. Most notably, he told me a story about a time when he was helping a woman give birth.
He explained that during childbirth, there’s more loss of control of certain bodily functions than many people expect, and that things can get messy. This means that the sheets or ‘chucks’ under a patient need to be changed from time to time--a task that’s generally considered to belong to the nurses. Ari explained how he’d channeled his improv training and changed the chucks to ‘save the scene’ as it were, while the nurses where unavailable. The nurses responded with unexpected delight, and felt like Ari had behaved much more like a part of the team than they were used to from medical students. Ari believed that it was that improv attitude that enabled him and his improv co-instructor Brynn Utley to graduate with honors from their highly competitive program.
This story really stood out for me, so when opportunity presented, I shared it with my father in law, Howard Graves, a doctor who until recently worked at SF General and is one of the most experienced Emergency Medicine specialists in the Bay Area. I was astonished at the vigor of this response.
“This is a really important point, Alex,” he told me, “and the way I teach it is this...”
He then went on to describe in enthusiastic detail a communication principle that seemed, at first glance, to be almost completely different from ‘make your partner look good’. What he told me was that in medicine, maintaining the dignity of patients is critical. Patients who walk into an emergency room are often at a huge emotional disadvantage. They frequently feel more vulnerable than they have in years. For the doctor handling that patient, another knock to that person’s confidence can mean the difference between their being able to give rational answers about their condition, and not giving useful answers at all. Retaining the dignity of your patients can be a matter of life or death.
When I went on to ask Howard about interacting with nurses or other doctors, he said the same principle applied. For a large number of historical reasons, modern medicine has inherited a rather hierarchical culture that sometimes can get in the way of the effectiveness of the people who comprise it. By taking personal responsibility for keeping up the dignity of everyone you interact with, they feel comfortable and confident working with you, and everything works better all round.
Of course, in truth, Howard’s message has more in common with ‘make your partner look good’ than at first I supposed. Both ideas encourage us to take responsibility for someone else’s experience and to make sure it goes well. The difference, I think, is that ‘make your partner look good’ is about achieving a shared goal. In improv, the good of the scene is placed above the experience of any individual player, and as a consequence, every player gains. In contrast, Howard’s idea often relates to situations where there may not be any shared goals or where goals may be in conflict. I think of this idea as ‘Second Person Status’.
The improv concept of Status is old and well-established. It essentially explains how every character in a scene broadcasts some level of intrinsic authority through their choice of posture, language, etc. Applied improv uses this concept to unpick the social dynamics of real-life situations. In applied improv terms, then, Second Person Status implies that when you find yourself in an environment plagued by a brittle emotional landscape, you can achieve a lot more by attempting to ensure that the status of those around you never drops. It’s a bit like learning to walk through a glassware showroom while wearing a backpack. You take each turn carefully.
I’ve been teaching people to read and pitch their status for years, and also how to flex when the situation requires it, but I feel like this idea is a little different. Taking personal responsibility for the status of others gets at the heart of what ‘respect’ in human society is all about. I suspect that this approach could be useful in academia, business, international relations, and any number of other arenas. I’m now looking forward to turning this idea into a sequence of targeted games and trying them out.
As my last word on the topic of respect then, I have this to say: Respect to Howard Graves and Ari Hoffman--two wise and excellent men.