Conversations at work can often feel more like political debates and battles between egos. People with strong points of view argue and debate without anyone moving toward solutions or common goals.
Collaboration is difficult when conversations are competitive. Instead of dialoging together, co-workers try to outdo each other. Without fully listening, people are forming their own thoughts, just waiting their turn to jump in.
A common response to new ideas is often “No,” or “Yes, but…” followed by, “That wouldn’t work and I’ll tell you why.”
What if we could improve conversation skills so that everyone—supervisors, team leaders or individuals-may connect more by engaging in creative, collaborative dialogue? Instead of debating differences and promoting our own opinions, the discussions would be supportive, friendly and fun.
Here’s a suggestion: Simply replacing “No” with a response of “Yes, and…” can make all the difference. This conversational rule comes from improvisational theater. The way improv comedians are trained turns out to be excellent for improving conversations at work as well.
The First Rule of Improv Comedy
Second City Works has been offering training to organizations for decades now because the same skills required for comedians on stage are also effective for companies.
Improvisational training improves people’s ability to process on the fly, relinquish power struggles, create space for everyone to contribute, and learn how to learn from failure. People use the rules of improv to increase their capacity for innovation, creativity and confidence.
In the book Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City, by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, the authors describe how the same improv skills used to create funny scenes can also improve emotional intelligence, increase creativity, and teach you to pivot out of tight and uncomfortable situations.
Improv comedians share the common goal of a lasting interaction and a deep connection with their co-players and the audience. Above all else, players aim for flow. When you think about it, these are similar goals required of people working together in business today.
At work, conversations can feel awkward, people aren’t sure how to respond, or they walk away without understanding or connecting with a person. The rules for improv can help you:
- Eliminate awkward silences
- Help make conversations flow smoothly
- Listen better
- Connect more deeply without effort
Great conversations don’t always appear spontaneously; you’re not always on the same wavelength as your partner. You can’t use a script or list questions to ask.
In improv comedy, participants collaborate and support everyone, working towards a common goal. Players need to be flexible and carefully listen and observe the other person.
They don’t come on stage with expectations about where the scenario should end up. They watch for emotional signals and respond to everything presented, both non-verbally and verbally. Great conversations are created in the same way.
When you have a set agenda, you don’t listen or observe. If you are constantly debating, arguing, selling or trying to change minds, you can’t create a feeling of likeability and collaboration.
When people try to control the flow of conversation they miss out on important clues to what others are really thinking. Here is the first rule of improv comedy that you can apply to work conversations.
Rule # 1: “Yes, and…”
This is the first rule of improv: no matter what the other person says, you must respond with “Yes, and…” in order to build and expand the conversation. The key here is to accept what’s said — regardless of what you may think of it — and to add to it. It’s absolutely foundational to improv.
We can understand why. When someone responds with “No,” or “Yes, but…” it shuts down the scene and it’s not funny. The same thing happens at work. Responding to another with “Yes, and…” is an easy concept to understand — but in actual practice it’s hard to commit to doing.
It requires you to trust that others will support and build upon your contribution and it requires you to do the same for them. In business, support is almost always highly conditional.
- “I’ll support you as long as I know where this idea is going.”
- “I’ll support you as long as success is guaranteed.”
- “I’ll support you as long as there’s something in it for me.”
People don’t like giving up control of the conversation. And yet it’s only when you trust enough to let it happen that surprising innovations happen.
Obviously not every idea is a good idea and there is a time and place for using “Yes, and…” There are times when people have to be told “No.”
Yet too often “No” is the default response to everything. It’s offered as a way to avoid risk and possible failure. It results in customer dissatisfaction, employee disengagement, and lack of innovation.
Responding with “Yes, and…” is a skill that’s useful in deepening interpersonal relationships, teamwork, feedback, brainstorming, conflict resolution, sales negotiations and problem solving.
Saying “Yes, and…” gives conversations energy and forward momentum. It gives people confidence to speak up and participate at their best. It allows individuals and groups to bring their finest selves to a conversation and get the top ideas into the room.