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Team Culture

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

Can the fast and loose creativity of improv comedy translate to our own lives? An exploration of the practice of saying, "Yes, and..."


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?

Comments (14)
  • Araz

    I couldn’t agree more Scott! ‘Yes, and…’ is a great exercise to do with groups just before diving into an ideation type of session where you want to really explore as many ideas as possible before making judgements and applying filters. Here are some of my thoughts on this from my blog: http://araznajarian.com/?p=84

  • Aging Wisely

    This approach works so well for many things. In our work, this is used with elders with dementia (Alzheimer’s disease and others) as a great communication tool–way to engage interest, get involved in their reality. There is a great storytelling program called TimeSlips which uses the improv methods to engage people–here’s a link that shares a bit about how it works along with a video when it was featured on Today Show: http://www.easylivingfl.com/ti….

    Works great with team members, colleagues, relationships,so many situations…as we “grow up” we’re so oriented to limiting possibilities, saying no and being skeptical, this can be a real way to open one’s self up to new ideas.

  • Laura

    This works very well. In the Netherlands we have a Dutch best selling author Berthold Gunster who based a whole organization on teaching people from ‘yes-but’ to ‘yes-and’ behaviour. The method used he calls ‘flip thinking’. Visit http://www.yes-but.org & http://www.bertholdgunster.com if you want to know more about it.

  • Jim Barrett

    Yes. I’ve started taking improv classes last year and realized how much I was saying no. I’m finding Yes, and a great tool to helping me open up to new ideas.

  • Steve Tamayo

    I’ve also found that this “Yes, and” principle helps with conflict resolution on my teams. It takes us from argument to problem solving. Great post!

  • Pete R.

    Looks like an interesting experiment! I’ll definitely try that more. I love the way you compare Each moment to a tiny explosion of possibility. That sums it all up why being open is so important and could lead you to something you may not have thought of before.

  • Chris Stonebender

    “Yes, and…” works great. In the interest of avoiding negativity in collaboration, I’ll use “That, or…” in situations where “Yes, and…” isn’t appropriate. Still keeps things going forward; avoids the stop-dead-and-backpedal usually caused by a flat “No.”

  • Patryk Les

    True:)

  • Brett Dudo

    Jim Carrey’s Yes Man is proof of how amazing this concept is. “Redda Booooll!”

  • fjr

    I have seen the “Yes and” approach work well and I have seen it work poorly. I know a coach who uses “Yes and” as a way of NOT listening. Whatever you say, particularly if it disagrees with his prior belief, he says “Yes and” and then expresses an often contrary idea as if his thinking has simply gone beyond what the rest of us are thinking.
    So I would say don’t use “Yes and” unless you are actually listening and mean it.

  • Matthew Klein

    As a student of improv, I’ve found the power of “Yes&” to be transformative in all aspects of my life but I will share one example as a parent. My kids (ages 5 and 8) were bickering about a make-believe game they were playing and I interrupted them with, “Hey guys, do you want to learn the secret to having more fun? Wouldn’t life be great if you could have even more fun??” They readily agreed it would be. “When your brother or sister suggests something, say ‘Yes!’ and then add to it. Try it.” They did. It worked. Now, I do have to remind them of this pearl of cosmic wisdom – humans seem wired to respond with “No” – but it is amazing how quickly they can move from blocking to building and having more fun. And it is deeply gratifying to see as a parent.

  • Kris Embree

    This is excellent advice. After working with personal businesses and recently attending school for Web Design, I have been aware of how that simple positive tone in individuals portrays them as very courteous, respectful and professional. I have also noticed how it changes the attitude of my son when his dad and I respond more positively, he is much more open with us and more willing to work around the issues.

  • Sally Bain

    This is so true. And you put it so well. Although a cohesive ego is essential to good life those in disarray keep shutting the solutions out. It’s a natural part of development. We all have to go through its cohesive process, but the sooner the better, yes? Saying Yes is a bloody good practice. Thanks for the good words.

    ‘It’s not good enough for us’, negates creative process. Take Scott McDowell’s advice and Yes, instead.

  • Crystal Matthew

    As a designer, the “Yes, and…” strategy is one I’ve utilized for years as a fundamental part of my creative process. When conceptualizing on a problem, this approach lends itself to the ignition of valuable insights and I find that I can produce a higher volume of quality solutions in the brainstorming phase. Yes, and… Yes, and… Yes, and… ad infinitum.

    As an example: You’re presented with the concept “Like a fish needs a bicycle”. Given the “Yes, and” rule, you’re not allowed to throw your hands in the air and assume that there’s no way to make a bicycle somehow useful to a fish. Is there some way to reconstruct the bicycle in such a way that it could be used underwater? And then it strikes you. The FISH needs to evolve. To crawl out of the water with brand new legs, extending beyond self imposed limitations and embracing the opportunity to do something truly innovative.

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