Two-Words Deep

I love knowing how widespread Improvisational Comedy has become. I love that YouTube is filled with professional, independent, amateur, and hodgepodge groups of people getting together to create plain nonsense.

And I love that the concept of “Yes, And” has a place in mainstream conversation, business professionalism, and personal interaction. 

I would like to help flush out this principle a bit and give any interested party an exercise that can be applied individually or as part of a group, whether alone in your house or surrounded by expensive suits.

As a foundation, here is the concept of “Yes, And” in the improvisational sense. Then we’ll expand and look at how it accentuates our personal and professional lives.

When we begin a scene, there’s a lot that happens in the first few seconds between the people on stage. At its simplest, if we have only two people on stage, one of the performers will provide an offering—a gift of an idea—to the other performer, who then takes the next step in responding to the offering.

This interaction is “Yes, And.” The initial offering is created from the audience’s suggestion and then handed off to the next player to see what they do with it. Ideally, the second performer will accept the reality established, and build off it which creates more to work with. Here’s an example:

Let’s say the suggestion is submarine. Performer one may begin the scene by tightening down a bolt on the bridge and say, “Sailing on second-rate submarines is not what I signed up for. I’ve found five of these loose bolts in the last two days.”

All right. There’s a lot to unpack there, but we know what we’re focusing on. Since this is only the first line, what we’re interested in knowing is if the performers are on the same page. Player one set down a solid base. They are sailors, on a submarine, and player one keeps finding loose bolts. Now, what we hope, is that player two will accept those facts and then add something on top.

So, player two could say something like, “George, in my humble opinion, you’re approaching this from a pessimistic attitude. I like to see it as a second-rate submarine, but a first-rate adventure. I don’t mind a little water in my bunk. Know what I mean? Here, use these paper towels to clean up that puddle you’re kneeling in.” Player two then pantomimes tossing a roll of paper towels to player one.

That is a robust scene start with plenty of unknown to explore. We’re still in the submarine, it’s still second-rate, but now we see what positions our characters have taken, and what their relationship might be. We may even deduce that the submarine is already at sea, or the very least docked but underwater.

We accept the reality, then work with our partner to enhance, improve, specify, and keep painting the picture.

I love this idea far beyond the confines of the stage. I look for moments every day to “Yes, And” myself, my wife, my coworkers, and any situation I can. It’s quite challenging and tons of fun.

However, the exercise I love only ends with “Yes, And.” It begins somewhere else entirely.

In my twelve years of improv, I’ve recognized four real solid verbal reactions to any given situation. They are “No,” “No, But,” “Yes,” and “Yes, And.” I’d like to run through all four with you and show you the nature and potential value each has based on context and situation. 

First off, we have “No.” Here are a couple of examples. Again, for simplicity, we’re going to stage only two performers for each scenario.

Player 1: “I do love a burnt croissant for breakfast.”

Player 2: “That’s not a croissant.”

Player 1: “I love the way you tease me with your eyes, sweetheart.”

Player 2: “We’re underwater.”

Player 1: “It’s high time I rolled up my sleeves and burned Allen’s house down.”

Player 2: “Allen doesn’t exist.”

All these examples have one thing in common: player one initiates with something bold and specific, and player two shuts it down by denying the reality. 

“No” people are straightforward to spot, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying or frustrating. They have no ideas of their own, they don’t support anyone, and even if they shoot you down, they have no alternative idea to proffer. 

In improv, a solid “No” undermines everything worked for up to that point, and either the scene falls flat on its face with no hope of resurrection, or both players have to work extremely hard backtracking to find solid ground. 

In a professional or personal setting, “No” people aren’t much different. However, the reasons behind their “Why’s” are only known to them unless they share or we get it out of them.

Nobody likes a “No” person. Nothing can get started. We don’t trust them with anything positive or productive, and we find any reason not to work with them, be around them, or get personal or intimate with them.

In my experience, the people who respond with a “No” do so from a couple of key standpoints. Most likely, they’re ignorant and don’t know any better. Slightly less likely is they’re afraid and are attempting to hide behind self-supposed confidence. Maybe they’re blatantly out to sabotage. Or, least likely, this is just how they choose to be. However, if we want to work with these people, our listening, compassion, honesty, patience, and perseverance need to be on point. They don’t make anything easy but getting angry, emotionally lashing out, becoming apathetic, or any other dissociative tendency usually only enhances the problems.

The next scenario is, “No, But.” Now we’ve upgraded from ultimately shooting someone down, to shooting them down but offering something else in return. Let’s use our previous “No” examples and adjust them a bit.

Player 1: “I do love a burnt croissant for breakfast.”

Player 2: “That’s not a croissant; it’s a puppy.”

Player 1: “I love the way you tease me with your eyes, sweetheart.”

Player 2: “I don’t love you, and I’m your dentist.”

Player 1: “It’s high time I rolled up my sleeves and burned Allen’s house down.”

Player 2: “Allen doesn’t exist, and we have to sell our piano to make rent.”

Hopefully, you recognize that though we’ve changed, we haven’t necessarily found anything better. In improv, we term those players who utilize “No, But” as “dick-provers.” This is a response generally reserved for those who think they’re better than everyone else. They act like they’re listening, but all they’re interested in is getting across their idea/point of view/word/etc.

Nothing and no one is sacred to them.

These are some of my least favorite individuals, both in life and on stage. “No” people are easy to work with once you know where they land, but “No, But” people are actively engaged in pushing you around. If it’s not on their agenda, it isn’t essential, and most likely, there’s nothing that can be done to change that.

To deal with these people we honestly have to know who we are and have nothing to prove. We continue our active, productive, loving, and supportive work with them and whoever else is involved while not feeding into their aggressive assertiveness. They don’t respond well to honesty, simplicity, and watching their undermining work come back to haunt them. If all else fails, their hubris will reach its climactic end all on its own, which sucks in a lot of ways.

Alternatively, on a rare occasion, “No, But” can be one of the best life-saving tricks available. If I’m on stage and either my scene partner or I am having a rough time (and I mean rough), a properly placed “No, But” can redirect a doomed scene and put things back on track.

In this sense, the “No, But-er” is not steamrolling but saving. It takes incredible skill, humility, timing, and confidence to play such a role, but when done right, it’s incredible to witness. 

How many movie plots are built around a self-destroying character who has their life-altering moment and sees what they’ve been doing only to drastically turn everything around and save the day, or their life, or their loved one’s life, or the White House? 

Whom do you know that’s a “No, But” person?

All right. On to scenario three. We’ve reached “Yes,” everyone. Let’s use the same scenarios.

Player 1: “I do love a burnt croissant for breakfast.”

Player 2: “Oh, they are delicious!”

Player 1: “I love the way you tease me with your eyes, sweetheart.”

Player 2: “And they love to tease you, snookums.”

Player 1: “It’s high time I rolled up my sleeves and burned Allen’s house down.”

Player 2: “Burn that bad boy down, Curtis. Burn it down.”

“Yes” people are everywhere, and depending on their personality can either be amazing or beyond challenging to have around. As apparent from the above examples, all they do is agree. They offer no support, no improvement, no alteration, no real choice or consequence of any kind.

They are content to let their partner do all the work while they reap the rewards.

As one-sided as that sounds, I want to share some reasons why “Yes” people do their yes-ing. The most common is ignorance. They simply find themselves in a situation they have no knowledge or expertise in, so they find someone who does and latch onto them for a lifeline. From this angle, there isn’t anything wrong with that, unless the “Yes” person decides to transform into a leech and siphon their host’s life away for the sake of their own. Who doesn’t need some help or to be saved from time to time?

But really, a “Yes” person wants to be involved. They just don’t know how. In improv, this is the most common reaction a scene partner gives, especially if they’re new. They want so bad to be a part of things, and they don’t understand that “Yes” is only half the ideal equation.

Other aspects of a “Yes” person involve the leech, as we discussed, but also wingman. The wingman is the role they feel they’ve been born to fill because they carry insecurity and fear in themselves. The idea of making a solid, bold choice that leads to any sort of consequence terrifies them, so they lean on those that are willing to take the magic step. 

This aspect also isn’t inherently wrong. We all know the benefits of a mentor/student relationship and the hope of transferring knowledge and experience from the master to the apprentice. But, if that relationship isn’t fostered properly, the apprentice will never grow or see themselves as anyone but an apprentice. It is possible to turn a “Yes” person into a “Yes, And” person, but it takes an incredible amount of love, support, trial and error, and guidance to do so.

So now we’ve reached the end of our journey, beginning where we started. “Yes, And.” The ideal scenario in which two improvisers work together in a proverbial volleyball match to move back and forth throughout a scene, giving and taking as they demonstrate their craft.

Remember, the ideal is to accept the reality of your partner and then enhance it. Let’s use our examples one more time.

Player 1: “I do love a burnt croissant for breakfast.”

Player 2: “Oh my goodness, so do I. The way it wafts through our vents at five in the morning to wake me up from my sensual dreams with Chris Evans is how I always want to wake up.”

Player 1: “I love the way you tease me with your eyes, sweetheart.”

Player 2: “Oh…about that…I may have accidentally used them to tease the barista.”

Player 1: “It’s high time I rolled up my sleeves and burned Allen’s house down.”

Player 2: “Curtis, I’ve stockpiled gasoline just for this moment. It took you long enough to realize that Allen has got to go.”

Hopefully, you can see how building upon each gift yields an incredibly more rich scene with endless directions to go. All it takes is the courage and tenacity to approach them.

So there you have it; one of my favorite “Yes, And” exercises. It’s such that you can practice all these steps with anyone. If you’re a manager and need to work on communication, either put together a group setting or meet one and one and jump through each level. I like to give each pair thirty seconds per side, where one person initiates and the other responds literally with each reaction. They do this for around thirty seconds and then they switch and repeat. And for each reaction, I’ll have them switch partners to experience something new with someone else.

It’s quite simple and profoundly effective.

After the end of the exercise, I ask them to reflect on a few things:

Which kind of person are they?

Which would they like to be?

When is it appropriate to use these reactions? (In improv, it’s more black and white, but in life, there is a time and place for all of these.)

What did they observe while working with their partner?

How did each of those reactions make them feel? How did they feel when initiating? How did they feel when reacting?

In the end, we hope for some self-reflection and honesty to push us through. If we fail with those, the whole point is lost. The principle of “Yes, And” has always been more than acceptance. It’s a product of proper communication and active interaction between people. It’s the beginning of a relationship, which is the underlying goal of everything we do.

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