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The 'Golden Rule' For Better Relationships: Say 'Yes-and...'

What to do when you want to say what you're thinking, no matter how negative.

“Yes, and…” is the golden rule that makes improv comedy work. It’s how the players build their scenes. It means, “I hear you and accept what you say and I add to it.” But “yes, and…” is much more than a technique to get laughs at a comedy club. It’s a huge part of what makes us human. It’s how we become members of the human culture. It’s how babies become speakers (and much more). Take this typical conversation. Baby: “Wa wa.” Daddy: “Yes, the doggie is drinking water.” Baby: “Doggie wa wa.” Very few fathers studied improv comedy and learned the rule of “yes, and.” But 99.99% of fathers accept (say “yes” to) their baby’s babble and add to it, build with it (“and” it), as in the example.

Accept and build. It is simply, gloriously—and literally—a humanizing way to relate.

We develop into speakers and language-makers and conversationalists through “yes, and…” But then something happens. People stop “Yes, and-ing” us so much, and we them. As babbling fades and we become competent speakers of the language of our family, community, and culture, we more and more hear “no” and “yes, but…”—and this continues throughout our lifetime. I’m not suggesting that we never say “no” again. “No” is often warranted, not only to keep children from running into the street but also among adults in many situations. What I am suggesting is that you take the “negative temperature” of your conversations and those around you. Are they filled with denials, rejections, and negations of what someone says? Do they more often than not get tense, lead to some bad feelings, turn into an argument or go nowhere? Do they have to?

That depends on what you and your conversational partners are doing together. If you’re “doing knowing,” then the negative temperature is likely to be high. Your friend says something you know to be wrong about a recent event, your co-worker wants to go out after work to a bar you don’t like, or your sister wants to spend a lot of money she doesn’t have on a vacation. What feels like the right thing to do in these situations is to negate the person—to correct the “facts,” to reject the bar choice, to tell your sister she’s a jerk. It feels right because we’ve been socialized into the knowing paradigm—in effect, we’re saying, “Knowing is what matters. And I know better.”

You might be wondering how you can “yes, and” in these situations and many others when there’s a difference of opinion or a disagreement or you strongly object to what someone is saying to you, either because you know it to be false or you find it hurtful or disturbing. What else can you do but let the person know what you think and how you feel? Should you really be hiding that? Before you answer, ask yourself these questions first: “How come, right now, I need to say what I know or think? How will that be for the relationship I have with this person?”

If you do this, other ways to respond just might occur to you. Maybe you’ll let yourself be curious. (“Gee, tell me more about how come you like that place so much.”) Maybe you’ll take it as an offer to explore your differences. (“We agree on so many things and here’s a situation we see so differently!”) Maybe you’ll give you and your conversational partner a new challenge. (“How can I support you even though I disagree with what you want to do?”) Maybe you’ll …

Suggested Viewings and Readings

  • Watch an improv lesson from Tina Fey.
  • Get a copy of Cathy Salit’s Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work.
  • Read more about transformative ways to see and be in the world, go online and read my free book, The Overweight Brain: How Our Obsession with Knowing Keeps Us from Getting Smart Enough to Make a Better World.
More from Lois Holzman Ph.D.
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