Two Little Words That Pack a Punch(line)

UPDATED: February 15, 2013
PUBLISHED: February 15, 2013

As usual, my 13-year-old is lounging with our cats at bedtime, ignoring my reminders to head upstairs. “Make me go,” he says with a grin—and for once I keep calm. “OK,” I say, lifting my hand above an imaginary object. “This is the eject button. When I push it, I can’t be responsible for what happens.” I push the button and, miracle of miracles, Davey rockets out of the room and up the stairs. He nearly breaks his neck and two vases on the way, and his laughter undoubtedly wakes his sister, but I’ll take it.

Chalk up another one to comedy improvisation, my favorite hobby. If you’ve seen or done comedy improv, you know it means inventing scenes on the spot, often based on audience suggestions. The main technique that keeps improv scenes afloat is called “Yes, and”: You accept whatever your fellow performer creates in the scene (Yes!) and build upon it (and…). Tina Fey illustrates the beauty of this in her book, Bossypants: “[If] we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze. I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, ‘Freeze. I have a gun!’ and you say, ‘The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!’ then we have started a scene… ”

One of the best things about “yes, and” is how well it works offstage. During that bedtime face-off with my son, for instance, I said “yes” to his notion that I should make him go to bed; my “and” was the eject button.

Plenty of my improv friends—scientists, teachers, salesmen, cops—have had similar triumphs with kids and grownups alike. The secret, they agree, is that when you accept at least part of what someone offers you, whether it’s a gripe or a form in triplicate, he becomes more open to your ideas. My improv coach Jeff Andrews, a middle- and high-school reading specialist, says he often “yesses” students’ feelings such as boredom and annoyance. “My ‘and-ing’ usually ties in to the fact that their feelings are actually why they should do the work. ‘I see you think this is beneath you… and if we get this done fast, we can have proof that you already understand this and you shouldn’t have to do it again.’ ”

Improviser Greg Owens, who works for a paint company, believes “yes, and” is “one of the most empowering tools in sales.” Early in a transaction, he explains, people tend to name reasons they don’t want to buy your product. A salesman who stubbornly defends himself (“Well, that’s the best I can do”) will make customers dig in their heels, too. But if he uses “yes, and” instead, he’ll seem helpful and well-informed. “For instance, the customer says, ‘That paint’s too expensive.’ The sales rep comes back with, ‘It is pricier, yes. And what you’re going to find is it has better coverage and your cost per square foot is actually going to be cheaper.’ That little bit of agreement enables the sales rep to point out another feature and benefit instead of being shown the door.”

“Yes, and” isn’t just about getting people to do what you want, though; it also can make you more of who you want to be. “It’s allowed me to be a freer creative person in the process of collaborative work, whereas in the past I was much more controlling—‘yes, but’ was more my approach,” says my improv pal Annette Ramos, an actress and storyteller who has used “yes, and” while co-writing plays. At home, she says, it helps her be a better mother and wife. “Agreeing with my husband or with my teenager when they bring up a point allows them to feel validated, and the conversation continues at a higher level of communication, versus, ‘Yes, but I am gonna prove my point and you are gonna be wrong!’ ”

I tried to explain all this to my husband the other day, while we were out taking a walk. Bill, a professor of philosophy—a field that attracts “no, but” types the way lumberjacking attracts guys in plaid—quickly mounted objections. “Yes, and” would be a big mistake if you were talking to someone with dangerous or crazy ideas, he said; agreeing with a lunatic can’t help either of you. Very true, I said. “Yes, and” shouldn’t mean you agree with everyone all the time—just that you hear them, acknowledge their views, and build from there…

“Wait a second,” Bill said, squinting at me in midstride. “You’re doing it to me right now, aren’t you?”