Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The "Yes, And…" Approach: Less Ego, More Openness, More Possibility

Remember when you were a little kid and diving into the deep end of the swimming pool was kind of a big deal? I had that slightly thrilling, slightly terrifying experience again recently at the 99U Conference when I attended a class with Charlie Todd, founder of the crafty improvisation troupe Improv Everywhere. He taught basic strategies for improvising and then had attendees volunteer to perform our own mini-sketches. For those of us with no performing experience, getting “on stage” was a bit frightening.

But it wasn’t that hard! One of the basic tenets of improv comedy is known as “Yes, and…” It’s a protocol that allows for anything to happen, and it goes like this: No matter what your fellow actors present to you, instead of negating it, belittling it, or disagreeing with it, your job is to say, “Yes, and…”  Accept the scenario as it’s presented to you (regardless of where you wanted it to go), and then to add to it. Volley back with something your fellow players can respond to.

Most of us say “No” a lot. We have to. Our energy is limited. In order to get things done, we have to be choosy about how best to utilize our time. (Learning to say “No” is the #9 key to productivity after all.) But, after the class, I became curious about what would happen if I applied “Yes, and…” to everything. How would it change my work? How would it change my relationships?

Here’s what I learned:

Letting go means less ego.

In meetings and team scenarios, we naturally want to hoard control. We care about being right. We think that saying “No” to others gives our own opinions weight. The practice of saying “Yes, and…” inserted a bit of distance between my brain and my ego, and helped me hear other perspectives with openness.

Openness yields unintended and positive returns. This type of open, positive approach to disagreement or conflict is a catalyst. It’s amazing how people respond when you listen and give their opinions credence. It’s a softening mechanism. It’s such an easy thing to do, with big and unintended returns.

We think that saying “No” to others gives our own opinions weight.

Building awareness forces you to reevaluate. It was remarkable and a little disheartening to note how often my first reaction to things is “No”. Am I really that negative? Saying “Yes, and…” forced me to notice and reevaluate the reflexive No’s in my life.

Each moment is a tiny explosion of possibility. The practice of improvising my life is a reminder that each moment is a tiny choice. I’m responding or reacting to what comes at me every minute and every second of the day. There’s possibility inherent in literally every single moment. It’s intense. Those small moments add up to a lifetime.

“Yes, and…” doesn’t work ALL the time. Like when your 5-year-old son etches hieroglyphics into the paint job of your leased car. Just for example.

I feel like I’m only beginning to see the rewards of using “Yes, and…” as a tool, and approaching my life and work as one, giant improvisational project.

What’s Your Take?

Have you tried a “Yes, and…” approach before? What happened?

More insights on: Collaboration, Risk-Taking

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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