The last few weeks have been an extremely exciting and busy time in the Patient Partner Project. After months of preparation, deliberation and planning, the pieces of the puzzle are all starting to come together.
One of the most pressing and important project objectives has been the recruitment of our patient partners. A seemingly straightforward task, but one which was fraught with constraints and conundrums. Starting out, we knew that we wanted to recruit about ten patient partners of different ages, genders, ethnicities and cultures, who would be broadly representative of the population of the Western Cape of South Africa. We also knew that therefore, some of our partners would have limited education and come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Immediately this meant that we would need to pay close attention to power dynamics and hierarchy’s which could undermine the central importance of our partnership approach. A second and equally important issue for us, was that of authenticity. How then do you recruit partners on the primary basis of them having experience of being a patient while, at the same time, knowing that in fact the more important requirements were that the partners have a high level of social and emotional intelligence, a willingness to take risks, the ability to think and respond creatively, listen well, and offer critical feedback? Those being but a few of the true “job requirements”, which gives a good idea of the challenge! And, while our partners will be receiving training, we knew that within our time and budgetary considerations, we could not accommodate beginning from scratch. We needed to start working with partners who already processed these innate abilities. So, how do you go about making such a challenging recruitment work? The answer, as it turns out, was simple. You play.
Applied improvisation is a form of theatre sports or performance art, that has been taken from a recreational space and applied in a professional one. Improvisation is structured around a series of ‘games’ which require the participants to engage spontaneously, be creative, listen well, communicate, interpret, reciprocate and empathise with the other players. There are no winners and no mistakes; everyone is equal and you play simply for the pleasure of playing.
Depending upon the nature and structure of a game (and there are hundreds), players will have to draw on the different innate skills they possess. This means that in a professional space, by playing a particular selection of games you can exercise certain abilities and, equally, identify those individuals that already possess the qualities in question. This approach avoids the pitfalls of a traditional recruitment process, where applicants will often present themselves as aligned to job criteria, saying what they believe a potential employer wants to hear during an interview. However, as Applied Improvisation requires nothing more from participants beyond that they participate, it offers recruiters a far more authentic expression of each applicant’s social intelligence.
We met with Applied Improvisation facilitator Marcel Oudejans, to explain the project and our concerns to him and, after some discussion, we decided to hold two workshops.
The first workshop, for project staff and students, introduced us to Applied Improvisation and familiarised us with the process, games and observations we could make. The 90-minute workshop was great fun and had us in stitches over games called ‘Crazy 8’s’, ‘Zip, Zap, Boing’ and ‘I’m a Tree’. However, just as valuable as playing and laughing together as a team, were the insights that emerged during the discussion at the end of the workshop. We were reminded that it can be fun to play like children and take a risk, and that laughter is a physiological reward for learning. We experienced communicating without shared language, which forces you to focus on tone and body language and, as one of our student partners noted, can actually make communication easier.
Three weeks later we held our recruitment workshop, which was unlike any other job interview! Within minutes of starting the games, our nervous and uncertain applicants were laughing and playing with us as if we had all been friends for ages. Power dynamics were flattened as we were silly and vulnerable together, as we laughed and were laughed at. We opened the lines of communication using tone and body language rather than words, and we closed physical distance as we used our bodies together to form scenes and letters.
After the workshop, staff and student partners met to discuss our observations and, with remarkable speed, we were able to reach consensus on a short list of applicants who were ideal for our project – those that had stood out in the games for their ability to listen well, interpret body language, empathise, be creative, take risks, be flexible and reciprocate. And, after an informal follow-up discussion with each of our short-listed applicants, we realised just how effective the workshop had been at surfacing those individuals that were engaged, interested in education, community-minded and willing to share of themselves.
So, it is with very great pleasure that we present to you to our very first team of Patient Partners!
Watch this space for more project updates and interviews.