This article is a part of the Improv Challenge — an initiative meant to build resilience and self-awareness through the use of improvisation principles in everyday life. The challenge follows a series of exercises outlined in Patricia Ryan Madson’s book, “Improv Wisdom.”
Exercise 1: Support someone else’s dreams. Pick a person and, for a week, agree with all of her ideas. Find something right about everything he says or does. Look for every opportunity to offer support. Consider her convenience and time preferences ahead of your own. Give him the spotlight. Notice the results.
I implemented this first exercise while still in college, where life was great with my absolute best friend in the world, Evelyn. We called her Ave — as college students, we figured Eve was a bit too common. Ave and I knew each other for ages. We had this comfortable vibe filled with support and brutal honesty as necessary. The week I spent implementing this exercise, I ignored the brutal honesty part of things and just supported Ave in everything she did and said.
This quickly led to some challenges when, on day 1 of this experiment, Ave called me out on being awkward with an acquaintance — I had no choice but to accept her feedback and reflect on it. In scrutinizing my own interactions that week, I realized how often we talk at one another rather than with one another. Think of all the times we have said or heard “that same thing happened to me!” while in conversation. Think of all the times we limit the potential of a conversation and guide it to fit our own roadmap. It’s natural: it’s conversation 101.
Though it wasn’t easy abolishing my tendencies, I quickly learned to catch my slip-ups. The truth is, being completely supportive and always putting someone else ahead of oneself is impossible. We have lives of our own that we need to live and they easily capture the majority of our attention. As a society, we pay more attention now to self-care than we ever have in the past, but on some level, we have probably always been programmed to prioritize ourselves over others. Fighting that inclination gives us the opportunity to learn more about the world we live in.
A professor I met in college made an interesting remark — one that I found extremely relevant to this exercise. His statement, “an agenda is a roadmap from which you can consciously deviate,” is one I have given plenty of thought. Throughout that week, Ave and I sat down together in the same room and had conversations that lasted for hours on end. Though, in that time, my agenda included completing two essays and many pages of reading, the realization that I saw Ave for a much shorter period of time than I spent alone taught me to be more efficient in my work habits.
I found hours in my day that I had never realized existed before.
By the end of that week, I had somehow managed to complete most of my tasks and assignments, while still deviating from my roadmap to have many interesting conversations with Ave. I got to learn more about her summer adventures in the Philippines, the latest in friend drama, and all the excitement of her love life, towards which I had previously stayed somewhat oblivious. This skill of extracting time where I don’t expect to find it has been integral in letting me have interesting conversations and meaningful experiences with the people around me throughout medical school and will likely help me maintain a life outside the hospital throughout my training.
In fighting the urge to add my own thoughts and experiences into our conversations, I learned more about the way Ave recites a story without any tangents. I became more familiar with her style of conversation and train of thought. Often times, when we interject in another person’s story, the storyteller feels rushed to finish and leaves out the minor details and subtle body language that accompanies a more relaxed tale. In giving Ave an unlimited span of time to relate to me her stories, I had a chance to hear about the Filipino customs important to her and I learned I’d been rounding the ‘o’ in ‘Tagalog’ incorrectly the entire time I had known her. I caught the relaxed sigh she made when sitting atop the dresser telling me about how lucky she felt to be dating Abe, and I saw just how important he was becoming to her.
In medicine, a 2018 study showed that physicians interrupt patients just 11 seconds after they start speaking. Having been on both sides of that conversation, I will say it’s difficult to temporarily clear my mind of potential diagnoses and information from my patients’ charts as I speak with them, but it is a skill I’ve learned with practice — and with the lessons I learned through this improv exercise. While I simply can’t reserve hours for conversation with my patients, I try to listen openly and without judgment after first asking a patient what brought them into the hospital.
Usually, within just a minute of active listening, I can better empathize with my patient’s reasons for their visit that day.
To really hear someone and empathize, I learned it takes a great deal of humility and openness. It takes the acceptance of things we may normally dismiss as frivolous to build new bridges in relationships and develop trusting connections between individuals. These connections may lead to anything from a great social group to an idea that could change the world. They set the tone for our interactions with the people around us. With my best friend, that tone results in inside jokes and unprompted laughter. With my patients, it has granted me the humbling privilege to care for so many in their darkest and most vulnerable hour.
In implementing this exercise, my connection with Ave got just a little bit stronger — and nearly 6 years later, we still laugh about my cringeworthy attempt to support her insistence that ‘literatic’ was a word. We laugh about the silly ensuing conversation about what types of words we would include in a dictionary of our own.
Our seemingly meaningless interactions that week ended up being some of our most memorable.
I asked Ave at the end of the week what kind of a difference she saw in our interactions and also asked her to judge my performance with this exercise. She approved and felt like I was her mother — “her really cool mother who asks her to go to parties with her.” When asked if she noticed anything different about me, she responded positively, noting that I had asked her many more questions about herself. “I really saw that you were interested in me,” she said, “It felt good.”
Pavitra Krishnamani is a medical student with a background in global health interested in innovating how we deliver healthcare to our patients at home and abroad. To learn more about her and her work, check out her website.