Substitute ‘yes, and’ for ‘yes, but’

“Yes, but” rarely has the effect you intend. The “yes” is supposed to affirm and validate what a teacher or staff member is telling you. It’s supposed to communicate that you really have listened to what they’re saying, that you appreciate the value of their input or opinion.

It’s the “but” that people hear most of all, however. They know the “yes” is merely a prelude to the “but” where you get to say what you think and what you want. They barely hear what you are saying in the “yes” part because they are waiting to hear why you think their ideas or suggestions won’t work.

In improvisation, one of the most important working rules for actors and comedians is that the unerring response to a statement, any statement, no matter how preposterous, is “yes.” It is called the Rule of Agreement and it is critical for nurturing the budding story line you and your fellow actors are creating.

The Rule of Agreement reminds you to respect what your partner has created and to start from an open-minded place, writes comedian Tina Fey in her recent book about her career (Bossy Pants). “Start with a YES and see where that takes you.”

If your fellow actor says, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger”, the scene stalls. But if you say, “That’s the gun I gave you for Christmas!” you keep the narrative’s momentum going.

Tina Fey is not the first to point out that the rules of improv are general good rules to live by. Obviously in real life you can’t always agree with everything everyone says. But remembering the working rules of improv will help you be more of a collaborator than a terminator. These rules may be particularly useful to you in brainstorming sessions with your staff when you want to keep the flow of ideas going rather than getting stalled in pools of disagreement.

Some other quick rules of improv:

You can’t just say yes. You must say “yes, and.” You must contribute something of your own to the conversation.

Make statements rather than ask questions all the time. Asking questions puts pressure on other people to come up with the answers.

Remember that there are no mistakes, only opportunities and happy accidents. Some of the world’s greatest discoveries happened by accident, because of a “mistake.” One person’s happenstance remark may be the beginning of a very fruitful dialogue.

Now I’ve just gone back to every reference to “improv” in this blog to remove the “e” that my autocorrect function insists on adding. It is a happy accident that my computer wants to make “improve” out of “improv”.

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