Yes, And: Getting Ahead by Getting Along
How the First Principle of Improvisational Comedy Might Just be a Superb Principle for Living
Being an effective person requires being able to get along with many different people. But navigating the various personal and professional relationships in your life can be difficult. Luckily, there is a simple tool that can help you build better relationships, help you more effectively navigate difficult conversations, and produce more creative ideas while with a diverse group of people. It does, however, come from a pretty unconventional source: Improv Comedy.
There’s a principle at the foundation of improv called yes, and. The idea is that in order for an improv sketch to work, the actors involved need to be able to count on one another to keep the spirit of the skit going — no matter what crazy improvised line one of them has blurted out. So if the sketch starts out as being about a boy asking a stranger if he’s seen his lost dog, and the stranger suddenly informs the boythat his dog is actually a dinosaur, and being hunted by the dinosaur police — everyone has to roll with it, or the skit falls flat.
When actors are yes-anding, an improv sketch could be a hilarious and surprising mini-play that takes the audience on a journey. When the yes-ands are half-hearted — neither yeses nor ands — it can be a train wreck on the stage. The same thing is true of many conversations in life.
So many of the train-wreck conversations that break deals and damage relationships have one thing in common: we’re failing to yes, and!
Why Yes, And Works
I have been yes, anding for most of my life. For me, it was forced upon me by my environment. I grew up in a household of stubborn, argumentative, and knowledgable people. My parents, grandparents, brother, cousins, aunts and uncles would argue constantly — with seemingly a whole lot on the line if anyone was proven wrong. In order to defuse many a heated arguments, I had to use humor — specifically improvised jokes that played off what someone had said. I still do it — because it works. It wasn’t until I started looking into the principle that realized why it works so well.
When done right, a yes, and does two things:
- defuses, prevents, and de-escalates rising aggression by acknowledging what someone has said, and accepting it by adding something onto it
- forces the other party or parties to collaborate
The “Yes” portion forces you to accept — at least for a little while — the validity of what others are saying. In personal relationships this is key, because when we (even implicitly) label others’ feelings as invalid, it turns them off to any possible cooperation or compromise. Both of those things are important to functional and productive relationships.
It forces you to contribute, but in a way that helps others first.
It gets others to accept what you say — due to the Reciprocity Principle
In general, it produces better creativity — because the agreeable nature of the conversation boosts the mood of the people involved. And it has been shown that good moods are great for creativity and idea generation:
“…the most powerful way to boost your mood and feel more creative and alive is to act compassionately and kindly. Mow your neighbor’s yard. Cook a casserole for a friend in need. Do something for your spouse to make their life a little easier. Donate money to your favorite cause or simply look someone who served you in the eye and say “thank you.”
“When we connect through compassion we experience what researchers call a “helper’s high.” We feel a rush of emotion that leaves us feeling happy, more connected, and calm. Often we can experience those feelings again, even when the good deed is long done, just by reflecting on the memory.”
How to Yes, And
Implementing Yes, And in real life is a skill you have to develop, but you can get pretty far simply with the right attitude. Quite simply, you have to want to get along with the other parties; you have to want to get them to cooperate and collaborate.And you have to want to cooperate and collaborate with them. Unfortunately, that kind of attitude is not always easy to adopt — especially when the other parties are being aggressive or abrasive.
Often times — especially in the context of business — the default attitude becomes adversarial; the other party is the enemy to be defeated. However, it is often when we act aggressively to defeat our foe — rather than collaborate with them — that we end up losing anyway. We ruin what could be a win-win situation that is not as good as what we could have gotten by collaborating. It is the classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma.
As you develop the attitude of wanting cooperation, you can employ some specific yes, and tools in your interactions. An easy place to start is with casual conversation with neutral parties. You can start with the blandest of topics, and just attempt to add on some substance to a comment.
For example: you’re in the break room and someone says “boy this heat is something else!” You could just say “yeah” half-heartedly and leave it at that. But if you yes, and the conversation, you could say something like “yeah, and it seems like no matter how much I prepare myself for it as I’m walking outside, it’s like getting punched in the face”. I do this all the time (not the same line, but something in the same spirit). It ends up either getting a laugh most of the time, and nearly always continues the conversation.
Obviously, that’s harder to do in conversations that are getting heated, but if you calm your own rising emotions, there is usually some way to use the power of affirmation and addition to keep tensions from rising to a boiling point. A great tactic to use is verbal mirroring and asking for confirmation. If someone is clearly getting angry (and you weren’t the direct cause of it) you can simply affirm their anger, and recap what you believe they’re angry about in a way that is generous to them (not “I can see your angry because you think I slighted you, but I really didn’t).
In most cases, that levels out the rise of tension, and even helps it begin to subside. Then you add something that continues to affirm their point of view and anger, but then suggests something. The suggestion can’t be I suggest you calm down!, it has to be something neutral, something to lighten things a bit, or something that takes divergent path that might have been hinted at earlier in the conversation. It can be tricky, and it relies heavily on the specific context of the conversation, but again, if you have cultivated a genuine desire to get along with the other party, it will be much more natural.
Using Yes, And helps you develop rapport and foster cooperation by affirming and adding on to what others say. Doing so leverages the principal of reciprocity — which inclines people to help others who have helped them. It also helps avoid or defuse difficult conversations. To effectively Yes, And requires cultivating the right attitude — a genuine desire to get along with others, and to collaborate.