5 Reasons Medical Improv is an Effective Strategy for Teaching Communication in Nursing

Communication Skills in Nursing

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been an RN for over 30 years! For almost half of this time, I’ve been teaching communication skills in nursing related to emotional intelligence (EI) communication, collaboration, and leadership.

Thinking back on my career I have to laugh at myself when I recall the first workshop I did on “Listening”. I realize now that talking about best practices in listening such as validating, suspending judgment, clarifying, and paraphrasing was NOT a very effective way of teaching the skills. Sure, the intellectual aspects of the topic may have been helpful, but the truth is, being a good communicator is much more complicated.

What makes practicing communication skills in nursing so complicated?

At the roots, communication involves human behavior which can be imperfect, messy, gray, and subject to all sorts of variables ranging from the weather to being affected by problems at home, fatigue, pain and other people’s behavior! There’s also the culture that we are working with.

I know from my own experience that practicing assertiveness in a toxic culture or a workplace where high stakes high stress demands are relentless can be quite frustrating! Asking for help, setting limits, or delegating tasks are all assertive actions that may fall flat when no help is available or limits are not respected. The feedback that many of us have experienced are tacit messages that it doesn’t matter what we have to say or to be quiet.

Another reason that makes effective communication skills in nursing challenging is that it requires sharing power in new ways.  Assertiveness requires taking on more power while listening requires letting go. Imagine how emotionally risky it might be for a new nurse to challenge a surgeon or a nurse manager to accept input from a new nurse.

Constantly shifting priorities with changes in team membership and patients and families who are stressed and vulnerable, we begin to see that effective communication is not easy!

What makes Medical Improv a great teaching & learning strategy?

Whether it was a coincidence or some divine intervention, I started to take improv for fun about the same time I began teaching workshops. I was also a single mom, recovering from a painful divorce, and learning about my own communication patterns.

Ironically, I was learning and practicing the skills in my improv classes at the same time I was teaching them to healthcare professionals. No surprise that I started to integrate activities from improv into workshops for nurses. Over time, it became apparent that improv was the most effective approach to teaching and learning emotional intelligence, communication, collaboration, and leadership.

Here’s why:

The activities are fun!

Sure they can be a little intimidating at first like giving an injection or starting an IV for the first time, but nurses can do it.  And once they relax a little, the laughter in the room is contagious.  How often do nurses get to learn together in a playful way?  It is a welcome relief to many to laugh and experience growth together.

The experiences are transformative!

Improv helps people internalize what it feels like to be heard, supported in sharing ideas, and participate in new ways. For example and with a little facilitation,  Same-Time-Story depicted in this video is a low risk way of internalizing all three!

Activities can be facilitated to meet people where they are at.

In any team it is likely that some people are better listeners while some are more assertive. In many activities one person will be practicing listening while the other is developing assertiveness. In the same moment!

Activities range from low to high complexity!

There are so many different activities that can be geared to those who are first-timers and those who love it so much they want more. It is helpful to have a little experience to gain confidence and familiarity with the principles of play.  Same-Time-Story mentioned above is simple and one I use often in first sessions whereas Gibberish Talk Show Host depicted in this video requires more experience. As playful as this gibberish activity is, don’t be fooled. It can be an extraordinary way for nurses (and doctors) to share power.

Improv improves relationships!

The principles of improv naturally promote trust and respect among participants. This is essential for the best teamwork which contributes to safe care, positive staff morale, and optimal patient experience.


Consistent, respectful, and effective communication skills in nursing has been a stubborn problem among staff and with patients in healthcare systems everywhere.  This exciting new strategy for building these skills offers all sorts of benefits.

Beth Boynton Art of Nursing speakerAbout the Author: Beth Boynton specializes in teaching skills associated with communication, collaboration, and workplace culture.  She is a Medical Improv Practitioner and author of Confident Voices the Nurses’ Guide to improving Communication & Creating Positive Workplaces(CreateSpace 2009), Successful Nurse Communication: Safe Care, Healthy Workplaces, & Rewarding Careers (F.A. Davis 2015), and Medical Improv: A New Way to Improve Communication (CreateSpace 2017)! She can be reached at beth@bethboynton.com, Twitter @bethboynton, or through her (Confident Voices in Healthcare) Blog [www.confidentvoices.com]. Beth is one of the 12 Art of Nursing program speakers in 2018.

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