Accepting unexpected realities lets us be open to further exploration.
Posted Jan 13, 2018
Ever done improv—that is, improvisational theatre? Neither have I. But it’s based on a marvelous principle, known as “Yes, and.” Within improvisational structure, when Person A makes a statement, Person B responds by accepting Person A’s statement (the “yes” part) and then builds on it further (the “and” part).
“Yes, and” is truly the direct opposite of “yes, but.” We often experience (or even use) “yes, but” where we seem to agree—and then undermine it totally with the word “but.”
What I find both fascinating and useful about the idea of “yes, and” is that it can be applied both between people and within any one individual. “Yes, and” is relevant for us all, whether we are capital-P Performers or “merely” living our lives. “Yes, and” says, essentially: Yes, this is the reality, and given this, here are some further thoughts.
You might even think of it as an extension of the “one, two” method I wrote about recently: In a difficult situation, it’s often important to pay attention to the feeling (one), not just the “what am I going to do about it” (two). Once you’ve negotiated both the feeling and the thought, you can get to the “yes” of this particular reality. And move on from there.
Let me share some examples:
A colleague of mine, a university professor who works with budding young vocalists, told me recently about a shift in his teaching method. Students take voice lessons from him in which they perform a passage of music and then wait for the critique. If he says, essentially, “’Yes, and here’s what you can do about it,” rather than “’No (you performed it wrong), and here’s what you can do about it,” the student feels validated instead of shamed. Not surprisingly, the student is then much more open to the professor’s comments and suggestions.
A client has been dealing with unwanted, obsessive thoughts for years. She finds that she can use a variation on “Yes, and” when she becomes aware of those thoughts: By acknowledging rather than fighting the thoughts, she then feels more flexibility and freedom in what she chooses rather than getting caught up in them at that moment.
One of my clients chose to take improv classes, and, among other things, was quite captivated by the “yes, and” aspect. Stephen, as I’ll call him, is a very real person. He’s given me permission to quote him, while at the same time I’ve disguised identifying information about him. He’s a highly intelligent, articulate, cautious, successful businessman. Our work together led to his desire to be more fully willing to figure out his own values and beliefs, rather than spend so much time accommodating others and not really knowing what he thought. He decided to take some improv classes:
"I was drawn to the idea of being willing to put my honest thoughts and feelings out there for the world to see, and to explore which aspects of my self might resonate with others. I hoped to feel a greater ability to make choices without overthinking them and without trying to make them perfect (or waiting for the perfect moment to act/speak).
"Now, I find myself more willing to say yes to others and to myself and having greater confidence in the idea that even if the choice I am making is imperfect, I'll still be able to make something good out of it."
Stephen reflected more on his experience with improv and his attitudinal change:
"Improv has helped me make room in my life for things that are important to me. I've typically divided the things I do in life as things that I have to do (e.g., work) and things that I give myself permission to do (e.g., watching TV) since I've already done the things that I have to do. That polarized approach didn't allow me to take a positive view of either my work or leisure.
"I created another category: 'something important to me.' I now treat more and more aspects of my day, including what I do at work and what I do for leisure, as opportunities to make choices. That change in perspective feels very good."
And the experience of improv has resulted in yet further changes:
"The most positive development in terms of my mental/emotional well-being has resulted from how I've been taking better care of my physical self. I bought a fitness tracker that monitors my steps and my sleeping hours. In addition, I've been eating food that I've prepared for myself for pretty much all of my meals in the past two to three months (except during social visits and outings). I feel much better physically, which has also helped me feel much better mentally.
"I still have days when I feel stressed or unhappy, but I find it easier to know that they'll pass and that I can help myself turn things around, often by some of the simple tasks and actions that I enjoy. One of my improv instructors used to always tell us to "start by doing," that it's often easier to pull yourself and your audience into a scene if you start it with an action (pretending to cut vegetables or to open a door) than by trying to come up with an opening line. I've applied that lesson, slightly out of context, in my own life. Whenever I feel the need for some positive thinking, I've realized that I can get there through action more effectively than I can through contemplation (which risks turning into brooding)."
“Yes, and” accepts reality, whether that of invention or of “real” reality—and then gives us space to figure out what to do with it. “Yes, and” encourages us to be fully present in order to explore possibilities.
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