A few weeks ago the NYU Stern Undergraduate Women in Business board of directors participated in an improv training session, led by a former-actress-turned-communications coach. This session grew out of an ongoing conversation I’d had with the ladies following their March conference, wherein they had expressed discomfort with speaking up and asking for what they wanted. (Here’s the blog post I wrote following that conference if you’re interested in the background story.)
Over the course of three hours the fabulous coach worked with the girls on understanding the different roles they play in different situations, thinking and reacting on their feet, being comfortable saying (out loud) “I failed”, and truly hearing what their partners were offering in an exercise.
It was this last part that created an interesting shift for the girls. So often we have prepared what we are going to say or do in a given situation and go right ahead and do it whether or not the circumstances were as we anticipated. Instead of being present and reacting to what is actually being said we respond to the script that is in our heads.
(Ever felt like you and a friend / boss / spouse were carrying on two separate conversations? Or gotten into an argument without being certain what you were actually fighting about? That’s what I’m referring to.)
But the key to improv is being on the same team, and to do that you have to be paying attention to what your scene partner is giving you — verbally and non-verbally. The first rule of improv is: Yes. The second rule is: Yes, and.
Yes: I hear you and I accept what you say is true.
And: I will build on it and help make it better
It’s crazy how those two words can change everything for a relationship. Think about the alternatives:
So often our immediate reaction to things is “no”. It can’t work. It’s too expensive / dangerous / complicated. It will take too much work. It is scary. It’s new and uncertain. It’s distracting. “No” is one of the first words we learn as children and becomes one of the most common words we say.
The problem with “no” is that it not only stops an idea dead in its tracks, but also that it can build up negativity over time and discourage the hearer from trying in the future. When you are certain the answer is “no”, why ask the question in the first place? Relationships built around “no”, whether romantic, friendly, familial, or professional, will ultimately lead to a breakdown of communication.
Perhaps just as common, however, is “yes, but…” While it at least begins with an affirmation that says “okay, I hear you” it still shuts the speaker down in the end. “But” is full of caveats, limitations, and excuses. “But” not only limits the chances of success for the idea by restricting resources, it too builds a bankroll of resentment. I think “yes, but…” is actually more dangerous than “no” because it is often followed by “I told you so” (whether explicit or implicit) when the suggestion fails — a double whammy of negativity.
Honestly, I think this is the secret sauce for all successful relationships. “Yes, and…” is just the slightest pivot from “yes, but…” yet it changes everything. It too starts with “okay, I hear you” but then shifts to build on the idea instead of dissecting its flaws. “And” is about supporting, strengthening, and validating. “And” increases the chances of success not by just a multiple, but often an exponent. Moreover, “yes, and…” builds rapport over time. Yes, and I’ll help: we are in this together.
How amazing: a lesson in relationships, management, and comedy all rolled into one. Brought to you by the letters A and E: Arts Education.