“Yes, and…” – Applying Lessons from Improv Comedy

My freshman year of college I joined my college’s improv comedy troupe. I remember the auditions so clearly. It was in a classroom with tiered seating where I would later take a terribly boring theology class – sorry, Kierkegaard. The audition consisted of different games to warm up and get into the spirit of improv comedy and then a monologue portion. For the monologue, members of the troupe would give each person one word and a minute to think of a (hopefully hilarious) story. You simply had to run with it and thinking of that situation now still makes my heart race.

My word was “safe.” I could bore you with the story I told but I think the best part of the audition was when I finished my monologue. The woman who had assigned me the word said, “That was great. I assumed you would use it as an adjective but I’m so glad you thought of it as a noun.” This has always stuck with me as a reminder of how two people can view the same thing so differently. Language can be frustratingly inadequate at times. But I digress! Believe it or not, that’s not the lesson I intended to divulge with this post.

I did not last long as an improv comedian. The nerves before shows greatly outweighed the fun in performing for me. I ended up doing some stand-up comedy later in college which I much preferred and would like to do again some day. I did learn to love the biggest rule of thumb for improv though – the concept of “Yes, and…”. We often started practices by playing “Yes, and…” which meant someone threw out a phrase and whether it seemed like an improbably situation, character pairing, alternate reality, etc., everyone’s only job was to willingly accept the scenario by saying “Yes, and…” adding detail to the scene. One of the worst things you could do when playing was kill someone’s idea by saying “No!” or “But…” or anything else to completely negate the scenario a teammate presented. If you ever watch improv shows you will likely see “Yes, and…” playing out on stage or you will see awkward moments as scenes fall flat when people don’t play nicely and kill the comedic energy.

I have found that using the concept of “Yes, and…” has been one of the best ways to facilitate brainstorming in group situations, provide feedback at work, and respond to people proposing new ideas in any situations. This played out at work today:

Colleague A: Have you ever used this project management platform? Would it work for Situation X, do you think?

Colleague B: Yes, but it’s been a while since I used it.

Colleague A: Oh, would you want to try it?

Colleague B: I don’t know if it would be any better than what I’m doing now.

Colleague A: *Now downtrodden* Oh, ok. I was just curious since so many of us are using it for other projects. *Walks away with head down*

I am not either colleague in this scenario but I do think I can sway toward acting like Colleague B at times which is such a drain on creativity and positive change! I am sorry, Colleague A! I overheard this whole conversation and I could not stop thinking about how if Colleague B had given slightly different answers it may have changed the tone of the situation, not necessarily the end outcome if the platform really is not worth using, but Colleague A might not have felt so defeated.

Colleague A: Have you ever used this project management platform? Would it work for Situation X, do you think?

Colleage B: Yes, it was in old role so it’s been a while since I’ve used it.

Colleague A: Oh, would you want to try it?

Colleague B: Yes, I’m just wondering if it would improve anything compared to what we usually do.

Colleague A: *Now curious* Gotcha, what’s the current process look like? Any pain-points?

And they ride off happily into the sunset! Or they book a group meeting space and take fifteen minutes to discuss the current process and any potential pros and cons to trying something different. I am working on using the “Yes, and…” way of thinking at work more often. What other ways could I incorporate it into everyday life?

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