“I hear you… but I can’t say “Yes” to everything in real life.”
That’s a pretty common sentiment when I introduce the concept of Yes And in professional settings. Quite often, I can feel a palpable tension when the Yes And slide pops up. I know it’s coming, and there’s no escaping the necessity of letting it be awkward for a moment.
Yes And is an integral part of improvised comedy. Without the concurrence of teammates to agree with the information each contributes to a scene and then build on top of it, scenes are boring or awkward or just plain embarrassing.
When improv goes sideways, and the audience is holding their breath because they’ve literally never felt sorrier for someone than they do for the performers on stage… it’s probably because one or more players has forgotten the critical step of agreeing with their scene partners and adding their own information on top of it.
In reality, this is a much more nuanced concept than meets the ear. Were you to take an 8-week long improv class, you would gain a profound appreciation for the life changing implications of this radically simple idea. Suffice it to say - there’s so much more going on than the words Yes and And.
On the surface, it is easily trivialized as one more nice-sounding bit of theoretical culture rhetoric that yields little of substance when you ask: but how does one DO THIS in real life? We can’t say yes all the time! There would be mayhem!
You’re not wrong, friend. In fact, thank you for that astute observation. We’re actually not saying yes to every idea, every creative impulse or every punchline on stage either. So here’s how I like to explain it when I’m teaching executive leaders, HR teams and other culture advocates in professional settings.
What we’re really talking about is navigating a conversation with equal parts humility and courage.
Yes = Humility
And = Courage
It’s a dance that requires both people to readily do either task depending on the needs of the scene at the given moment.
We must have humility to truly hear and utilize the ideas of another collaborator; especially if we believe we are more experienced, or otherwise more qualified. Humility reminds us that great ideas and exceptional solutions can come from anywhere. Humility reminds us that our scene partners are worth collaborating with, even after we’ve seen them get it wrong. Humility reminds us that it’s okay to continue offering our best contributions, even if we’ve been the one to get it wrong in the past.
Teammates fail in front of each other. That’s a part of real life. So if we’re waiting to pitch our bold ideas until we’ve garnered a perfect track record, or if we’re waiting for perfect scene partners in order to put forth our best collaborative efforts… we will wait forever and miss our opportunity to build something we’re proud of.
Humility reminds us that imperfect people can build amazing things. They do every day.
Courage dovetails nicely right here. Because it’s not enough to sit back and watch everyone else build the scene for fear of stirring the pot, or slowing down a meeting, or saying the wrong thing. At some point, you must summon the courage to speak up!
Otherwise you might as well be in the audience.
Maybe you feel worried about overstepping, or you’re currently burdened with imposter syndrome. Or maybe the thing that must be said feels a bit terrifying.
Courage looks different in different situations. But according to Brené Brown, one of my favorite thinkers on this subject, one thing every act of courage has in common is the presence of vulnerability.
To do this dance well; to build something that could not otherwise have existed, you MUST be vulnerable. Your contributions cannot be about proving something to yourself, your scene partner or anyone in the audience. The most helpful contributions to a conversation are the authentic contributions offered with the sincere intention of moving the scene forward in a helpful way.
In the world of performance and comedy, improvisers have many strengths; just like leaders have different strengths. Some feel natural ease at offering their information; they confidently tackle impressions, character work, or making up entire songs on the spot. Others are naturally strong support players, and easily remember unique details others offered, bringing them back at the perfect moment for a satisfying conclusion.
But regardless of what comes easiest, every improviser is responsible for noticing the Yes And dance. Am I offering courageously? Am I listening with humility?
Listen. With your full attention. Quiet down the voices telling you that you need to stand out, or be the super hero who always has the answer. Quiet down the gremlins in your brain that don’t want to hear ideas or feedback from someone who has demonstrated their faults in front of you.
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