Why the ‘Yes, and’ rule can improve your business relationships

I am a professional improviser, which sounds fancy, but I’d wager that you are too. My background is in improvisation on stage: just as in TV shows like Whose Line is it Anyway?, I go up in front of audiences and make it all up for laughs. This might sound a bit irrelevant to the business professional, but I define improv as the art of acting without a script, and how often in real life are we forced to do that? When we meet new clients, when we collaborate with our colleagues, or when we are forced to react to the constant rug-pulls that seem to define the modern working world: we are improvising. Stage improvisation offers us not just a useful metaphor for this new environment, it also offers us some useful tools to tackle it with more effectiveness and ease. The ‘Yes, and’ principle is probably the rule of thumb we full back on most, and here I want to show you how you might use it too. 

So, what exactly is the ‘yes, and’ rule? On stage we use it to efficiently build scenes together. It’s all about accepting and building off the ideas shared by the other person. 

Here’s a quick example, imagine the following exchange in an improv scene:

ACTOR 1: It’s been a hot summer, Jack, too hot. The damn fields are like concrete. Who’d be a farmer, eh?

ACTOR 2: Aye, Ted, it’s been the hottest summer I’ve ever known. I’m sweating in places I didn’t even know I had.

Not hilarious, I know! But notice how Actor 2 responded: he listened to the ideas of Actor 1, surrendered the idea he had in his head about what he was going to say next, in order to invest in Actor 1’s concept instead. The words ‘yes, and,’ then, are less important than the intention behind them: it is a collaborative, others focussed mindset. The ‘yes’ is about showing you have listened to and understood the other person’s idea; and then the ‘and’ is how you connect to it, adding something from your perspective, skill set and body of knowledge to build and explore the idea further. 

While we obviously don’t create comedy scenes at work, we have conversations all the time where we are tasked with co-creating solutions. Often though, people approach these meetings with the opposite mindset: they take what we would call a ‘yes, but’ approach. In the language of improvisation, they focus on ‘blocking’ the other person’s ideas. A colleague pitches a solution, and they respond…

‘Yes, but…it’s too expensive.’

‘Yes, but…that is impractical.’

‘Yes, but…we tried that last year and it didn’t work.

The word ‘but’ is a real trigger for a lot of people: it gets us into conflict. Where ‘yes, and’ creates inclusivity, pulling people into the conversation, ‘Yes, but’ pushes people away. The word ‘but’ eliminating everything that has come before it. Often coming across as, ‘Yes, I hear your idea, but here is something much smarter.’ Now, blocking behaviour comes from a good place: we aren’t trying to be difficult; we just want to be rigorous. And clearly, beating up ideas is an important part of any creative process. The problem comes when we take a ‘yes, but’ approach out of mindless habit. Or in order to show status: perhaps we are trying to prove our experience or knowledge? 

Most of the time blocks aren’t explicitly aggressive, they take the form of a sort of deliberate disengagement. Rather than say ‘Yes, but’ to other people’s ideas, we ignore them. Or respond, ‘Yes, anyway…(what about my idea instead?)’ Another common blocking behaviour is to ask incessant questions. (In improv, we say that questions are often just ‘no’ in a tuxedo.) Again, questions can be a useful technique, but only if the motivation behind them is right. Are you asking them out of genuine curiosity and in a spirit of exploration? Or are you simply being passive aggressive?

Being a great collaborator requires us to drop the idea that we always have to be the smartest person in the room. That every conversation or every brainstorm is a competition. Being a ‘yes, and’ sort of person is about having the mindset of trying to make the other person look good, by suspending judgement on their ideas long enough to find the elements in them that might be valuable. (Or at least that might move the conversation to a new place where we might find value.) 

Note: it’s not about the abandonment of judgement, just the temporary delaying of it. Importantly, the ‘yes’ in ‘yes, and’ is not agreement: you don’t have to think every idea you hear is a good idea. Instead, it is a commitment to exploring the perspective of others before you push your own. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

The innovation research is unambiguous here: there is a direct correlation between volume of solutions explored and the originality of the solution found. A ‘yes, but’ mindset might make you look smart and feel safe, but it will stop you having good ideas. If you want to be creative you have to think divergently, and ‘yes, and’ is the tool that can help you do so. What’s more, how we respond to the ideas of others is crucial ingredient in establishing the culture of psychological safety that endless research (by Amy Edmondson and others) has shown defines the most innovative teams in the world. 

Finally. think of it like this: a ‘yes, and’ sort of person and a ‘yes, but’ sort of person enters the room with a client. Which sort of person do you think the client is most looking forward to seeing? Who is she likely to build the strongest, most trusting relationship with? Who is she likely to recommend to others? It’s ‘yes, and’ kinda guy every single time.

Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classesshows and corporate training.


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