I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mantra improv comics like to repeat: “Yes, And . . .”
Washington Improv Theater has a show running through August 4 called Starship Odyssey: The Final Mission (Improv Saves the World). I found it to be, as advertised, a funny sci-fi adventure. And I was astonished, as always while watching improv, by the actors’ ability to keep the show smoothly and humorously rolling forward. How do they do it?
“Yes, And . . .”
(Side note: Since this blog is about books, I’ll throw in that I may know this from reading Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please. I certainly don’t know it from taking any improv classes myself! According to my records, I read Poehler’s book four years ago. Surely she mentioned in there somewhere the importance of “Yes, And . . .” to comic improvisation? I don’t remember; I merely remember adoring the book.)
“Yes, And . . .” in Improv Comedy
Here’s what the mantra means. When one actor makes a statement, the second actor doesn’t contradict it. That would burst the bubble of the imaginary scene. Instead, the second actor affirms the imaginary world. Yes, the second actor implies, the statement the first actor made is, indeed, true to what is happening here.
But the second actor doesn’t stop there. Merely assenting would stop the flow of the action. The second actor must move things forward by adding something to the imaginary scene. And, the second actor must indicate, this other thing is happening, too.
The first actor, or a third, can then jump in with another “Yes, And . . .” to keep the scene going.
“Yes, And . . .” in Business
At some point, some businessperson realized that “Yes, And . . .” is great advice for not just improv comics, but also entrepreneurs. Like comedians, people in the business world have to work with others to sustain shared, imaginative ideas. They must also add innovations to ideas already established.
“Yes, And . . .” in Friendship
But a cursory search of the Internet and the Wikipedia page for “Yes, And . . .” did not bring up any references to the mantra’s use in building friendships. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.
Sustaining shared, imaginative ideas; adding innovations to ideas already established—isn’t that what friendship is all about? How can you be friends with someone if the two of you don’t have any common ground, some shared understanding of reality? How can you be friends with someone if the two of you don’t build on that common ground to create new experiences together?
Let’s look at some examples of how you can use “Yes, And . . .” in building a friendship—and why things fall apart when you don’t.
Imagine, while reading the following examples, that you are at a social event, getting yourself a cup of coffee or tea.
Example #1: Unsuccessful Friendship Building
Your potential new friend just stated an imagined reality that the lids are missing. You failed to affirm this reality in any way. Instead, you just talked about yourself and your needs. Friendship fail!
Example #2: Unsuccessful Friendship Building
In this case, you didn’t so much validate your potential new friend’s imagined reality, as springboard past it to a new reality of your own. Instead of acknowledging the reality as stated, you used the other person’s statement as a gateway to venting your own negative emotions. Friendship fail!
Example #3: Unsuccessful Friendship Building
You were a Good Samaritan here. That’s nice of you; but you didn’t advance toward friendship, and the interaction ended with the solution to the problem. You never affirmed your potential new friend’s imagined reality. Friendship fail!
Example #4: Unsuccessful Friendship Building
You have succeeding in affirming your potential new friend’s imagined reality—good job! Yes, you indicated, the lids are, indeed, missing! However, the conversation got stuck because you didn’t follow up with anything after your affirmation. Friendship fail!
Example #5: Unsuccessful Friendship Building
Here you have succeeded in affirming your potential new friend’s imagined reality, while also being a Good Samaritan—excellent work! I really like that you used the word “hidden,” so the other person didn’t feel as if the placement of the lids should have been obvious. But the conversation is still getting stuck. How might you add something to this situation, so as to build a friendship?
Example #6: Successful Friendship Building
Ta-dah! Look at this! You said “Yes, And . . .” by affirming the other person’s imagined reality, and then adding something to it. As you can see, this has the effect of inviting the other person to follow suit with a “Yes, And . . .” of their own. Soon, you will have the opportunity to add another “Yes, And . . .” to affirm the reality and pass the initiative back. And so the scene continues.
Example #7: Successful Friendship Building
Ta-dah! As you can see, it doesn’t matter whether or not you are able to be a Good Samaritan and actually solve the problem. Your most important tasks in friendship building are to affirm the imagined reality, and then add to it.
You can also see that it doesn’t much matter what you add, as long as it’s said in a positive, non-complaining spirit. Then, if the other person also follows the “Yes, And . . .” principles, you will be able to sustain the conversation. Congratulations on making a new friend!
What About “No, But . . .”?
You have probably heard that learning to say “No” is an essential life skill. And so it is. But it’s possible to decline politely within the context of “Yes, And . . .”:
Example #8: Unsuccessful Friendship Building
You succeeded in setting boundaries—good work! However, you did so in a way that might damage your friendship with this person. At a minimum, even if your acquaintance has thick skin, you failed to take the opportunity to advance the friendship.
Example #9: Successful Friendship Building
Here, you said “Yes, And . . .” while also setting boundaries. First, you affirmed the shared reality that dancing is a fun activity for the acquaintance to engage in. Second, you added to the conversation by asking the acquaintance about the type of dancing and also sharing information about your cousin. This gives the acquaintance plenty of fodder for another “Yes, And . . .” response. And note that, amidst all of this, you were honest about your dislike for dancing.
And that’s how to decline while building a friendship.
Would you like to go on a long run with me this weekend?