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Improv meets healthcare at the Dietitians of Canada National Conference

Listen to my podcast version of this post instead. Less screen time, more audio fun!

There is still a part of me that wants to be an actor. When I graduated high school I chose science over theatre. But when I got to my late twenties, I felt that part of my life missing.

“I kinda want to see if it’s possible to be a part time dietitian and work part time in the theatre,” I had said to my then partner, just before the dreaded 30th birthday milestone. The relationship with that partner may not have lasted, but the dream of a unique career did. I didn’t know at the time how it would look — one foot in the sciences and one foot in the arts. It was only a few months ago that I realized I am just discovering that now.

Last week was the Dietitians of Canada conference in Ottawa. I delivered for the first time to this group a very carefully curated curriculum of comedic exercises, to hone compassion and counselling skills. The power of improv prevailed! The experiences in the workshop exceeded even my own expectations.

Participants ranged from practicum students to dietetic interns to experienced dietitians in media and relations, public health, community health, culinary, and those working with Indigenous populations. All participants had no to very little improv theatre experience, but all wanted to develop new skills and step outside their comfort zone.

I started the workshop with the aim of creating as safe a space as possible for people to take risks. We talked about keeping confidential the personal discussions that may arise, blind spots and biases we may have around certain topics, ditching the judgment of others and ourselves, and the language we choose to use.

The improv exercises were seemingly simple on the surface. But they were picked specifically for their ability to make participants realize their own tendencies in communication, as well as to open up meaningful discussions around listening, observation, agreement, status, and empathy.

Improv exercises don’t tell you what to do, nor do they teach you one “right” way of doing things. It is the process that brings you to your own conclusions. After all, in adult learning and behaviour change theories, the empowerment to arrive at one’s own solution is often more successful.

And in this improv workshop, that empowerment was fostered in unexpected ways…

We clapped at each other, we yee-hawed.

We passed around 15 different objects, and we lost half of them (guys, I’m still looking for my red ball…).

We planned meals that included fairy dust.

We gave each other gifts.

We tried to appease royalty.

We learned how to talk about You and I.

We learned the meaning of LUV.

We told stories.

We laughed. We cried.

And we were free to do so.

“I didn’t know this was an improv workshop before coming here. And I’m glad I didn’t because otherwise I would not have come,”

said one participant during our introductions. I love this. At almost every corporate improv workshop I’ve given, there’s at least one person who doesn’t want to be there. But by the end, that person tends to be the one volunteering the most for the exercises. This particular participant at the conference was no exception. A practicum student, at the end of the workshop they left this testimonial:

“This workshop was so valuable at highlighting the intricacies of human interaction… It pushed you out of your comfort zone in a safe, supportive environment. All healthcare students should receive at least one of these sessions… It build instant relationships between the participants.”

During the workshop I heard some participants say: “Wow, we’re also good at this! We’re all really committing.” Every dietitian and every student jumped right into each exercise and adapted to each of the unique challenges. This shouldn’t have surprised me, considering just how many transferrable skills a dietitian has to have to work in the multifaceted area of nutrition and health. It is in fact this that drew me to the profession in the first place — our options and abilities as dietitians seem limitless. So “commitment,” I think, is the perfect term. It reflects one of my favourite aspects of teaching improv — seeing the epiphanies participants have when they really allow themselves to immerse into the exercises. Again, on the surface these exercises may seem like silly games, but when committed to, the takeaway is profound.

And profound discussions did emerge. The exercises brought out hard conversations about how status and power impact the connection between clinician and client; how to hold space for people when they are sharing their pain; when to hold back and when to share emotion; protecting personal boundaries; what to say when we don’t know what to say in the face of trauma; dropping our agenda to validate over gaslighting other people‘s concerns; and how to stay true to our scope of practice.

And the best part? We had a truckload of fun doing it 🙂

From the feedback and the testimonials I received, I can see that the participants of my workshop had both a fun AND meaningful experience. From people saying:

“Very applicable and transferable skills,”

to

“I’m walking away feeling great and I have a bunch of new tools to help me better support my clients,”

to

“It’s fun and experiential, the best way to learn!”

To my favourite response to: One thing I recommend changing to improve this workshop is…

“You should emphasize how FUN it is in the description.”

But the joy wasn’t solely had on the end of the participants — I also left the workshop energized after the chance to work with a wonderful and courageous group of my peers. The workshop was transformative for me as well.

There’s a part of me that still wants to be an actor. And now there is a part of me that believes we can transform healthcare delivery with the power of improv. Imagine how much better multidisciplinary teams would work if they all started connecting and collaborating through improv at the university level! Inter-professional teamwork would be more of a natural outcome of the compassion developed through improv training — a more authentic form of connecting versus a team building project one must do for credit. It appears I have a new dream…

My career is taking me to places I have never imagined. I feel like this conference workshop was a game changer for me — confirming that one foot in the sciences and one foot in the arts is the right stance for me, and for me to help others. And what the game has been changed to? Well, we will have to discover that together. And no matter what challenges that game gives us, even if we don’t have a plan, we can all be confident knowing that when the time comes…

We. Can. Improvise.

Best in comedy, compassion, and healthcare,

Krystal Merrells

Registered Dietitian, Storyteller, Improviser 


Are you a healthcare professional looking for a fun and meaningful team building workshop? Are you a student who wants to be more confident in their healthcare counselling skills? Feel free to contact. I’d love to bring the magic of improv to you! I am located in Ottawa but can travel to you or can help you find improv resources in your community.

Krystal has worked as a diabetes educator in a clinical hospital setting, in research, in community health and in private practice. She has focused her professional development on health education and behaviour change counselling. Krystal started improv in 2014 and now teaches improv to students of comedy as well as IT personnel, Social Workers, leaders in healthcare and other corporate fields looking to apply improv skills to organizational development and culture. As improv has greatly improved her own skills you will often hear Krystal say “Improv is life!” Click here to contact.

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