Overcoming prejudice by opening up solution-focused conversations: Berkshire Healthcare Foundation

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Find out how forum theatre helped one troubled team open up and take action

“Like a can-opener, The Communication Practice’s expertly delivered ‘forum theatre’ opened up people to talk about their experiences and emotions.”

Jai Jayaraman, East Berkshire Regional EDI Manager, Berkshire Healthcare Foundation

Summary

An employee questionnaire revealed an undercurrent of cultural tensions and problems in working practices between staff in a particular hospital ward, yet time had passed without addressing them. While doing so had remained a regular agenda item in weekly meetings, continual talking was not leading to resolution.

There was a recognised need to address these sensitive issues in a way that would move things forward. It was thought that that forum theatre might help.

Bringing in The Communication Practice to expertly craft and deliver a script, and facilitate solution-focused, appreciative inquiry-led conversations, helped. Watching a scenario unfold that was close enough to their experience to relate to but different enough to feel safe to explore, enabled colleagues to reflect and speak openly about their own lived experiences. 

Situation

“We knew that we had some difficulty with a team. An audit we’d done some time ago had drawn out some very detailed responses to difficult issues occurring. Perhaps this was due to unconscious biases,” explains Jai Jayaraman, Regional EDI Manager.

“We knew that we had to to safely and constructively get those involved to talk about these difficulties. This would be difficult, because quite a lot of time had passed since the audit. We wanted to facilitate a solution-focused conversation and to minimise the impact of the types of defensive reactions that are typical when you just talk about problems,” he said.

Safe space

“We wanted to give them a safe space to talk about the issues they had. We thought one way to do that was to replay something in front of them that was, perhaps, not exactly the same issue but certainly something they could relate to. Something a bit amusing, something poignant. Something that would open up the space for them to talk about and own their issues.”

Aware of similar work The Communication Practice had done with other healthcare foundations, Jai invited us to pitch. 

Objectives

The challenge he set us was to find a way to enable staff to:

  • Safely reflect upon the problems identified by the audit
  • Feel that their needs had been recognised and their feelings validated
  • Identify for themselves what to change to make things better
  • Co-create changes to make things better.

Solution

Taking this brief and a wider understanding of how such a piece of forum theatre would fit into a full-day workshop, our team set to work. Mindful that our goal was to open up a safe space for emotional connection, we took time to understand the issues delegates had highlighted as problematic. We’re always respectful of the need to create scripts close enough to be relatable yet distinct enough not to be attributable. We’re always looking for that sweet spot that engages people emotionally, without triggering defensive reactions. Our intention is always to lead our audience members towards responding from a place of curiosity, rather than a place of shame or blame.

Taking action

Three of our expert actor-coaches then acted out the script in full. They then reran it encouraging delegates to shout out “Stop!” and suggest different actions the characters could take to address the underlying issues. 

Following this, we facilitated an open conversation about similarities the scenario had to issues participants faced in the workplace. We asked how they could change their actions to address these issues.

Success

All this took less than two hours within a wider, appreciative inquiry-led workshop day. Our intervention hit the sweet spot, as Jai describes.

“The Communication Practice understood the areas that we wanted to cover in the script very well. We had a meeting, I gave them some feedback from the questionnaires. The script writer wrote a script that was very on-point and relevant to the team and the issues. It was a quick, smooth process and only needed a few edits.

Engaging participants

“The team engaged in the “Stop!” exercise, making valid and sensible suggestions as to how the characters could behave differently to encourage more helpful responses. This enabled them to then bring their learning across and think openly and honestly about their own workplace issues in an expertly facilitated conversation. To be honest, I was a bit nervous about how close to the bone it was, wondering ‘Are they going to get really worked up?’. They didn’t. They truly engaged without getting triggered. A true sign of success, as their feedback about how much they enjoyed watching something they recognised intrinsically, but didn’t have to role-play, indicated. 

Positive feedback

“Participants also fed back that they really enjoyed being out of the office. They thought it was very relevant and were appreciative that they were given the chance to say what they needed to in a supported environment. 

“We could, of course, have done this online, but we’d have really lost its impact. Having these professional actors in the room, really brought it to life for the team. We’re well aware though, that we need to work with that team on a monthly basis to give them the chance to vent what had been building up over the previous two years. You can’t do that in one workshop. 

Committing to next steps

“One workshop is successful in opening up people and getting them to talk, but if you want real success and change, then it’s about giving the space on an ongoing basis and normalising those conversations we had, so they’re not “workshop” conversations, they’re “normal” conversations. This is something we’ve committed to do.

“I would recommend The Communication Practice to anyone who wants to open up a safe space to have conversations around EDI. They listened to what we needed. They produced a great script with minimal fuss. And they provided an excellent facilitator and some really good actors on the day to act out the script. For me, the process acted as a can opener, opening up people to talk about other emotions. Where we take it next is up to us.”

Jai Jayaraman, East Berkshire Regional EDI Manager, Berkshire Healthcare Foundation