When 'Yes, And' is Anything But

Paul Giamatti and his TV family show us how *NOT* to use 'yes and.' Thank you, paul! (screenshot: Centurylink)

Paul Giamatti and his TV family show us how *NOT* to use 'yes and.' Thank you, paul! (screenshot: Centurylink)

Sometimes I run into the concept of "yes, and" unexpectedly, and sometimes when I do, it feels like a bump in the road. Last week, I was sitting in a meeting when an attendee raised her hand and offered a challenging opinion. The facilitator responded with "Yes, AND" — followed by a statement completely undermining the person who had just spoken. People in the room cringed.

Which led me to post on my personal facebook page* later that day:

If you say "yes, and" without embodying "yes, and," you're missing the point. And it doesn't work.

One of my insightful and talented improv friends, Tim Tracey, inquired what I meant about this statement, which was a wonderful invitation to get my brain going. What did I mean, really? Here is part of our conversation:

Tim: what do you mean by your original statement?
Me: I believe that the intention behind the concept of "yes and" is to affirm the person with whom one is interacting, and to add something new to the interaction, building upon what they have offered. So there is the principle of 'yes and' and the literal words 'yes and.' The words 'yes and' are an approximation of the intention. I have witnessed people use the words 'yes and' with a different intention, which makes the the words 'yes and' irrelevant and impotent. For example, person A says "I believe in God," and person B replies with, "Yes, and that's stupid, there is no god." In other words, it is possible to block while still uttering the words 'yes and.' The words are not enough without the intention.
Tim: Are you talking about improv or life? Actor or character?
Me: I was talking about life, but it may be true on stage, too. A: I love fishing! B: Yes, and you're lying.
Tim:  i find it very difficult to yes and in life. Yes is very easy but is more difficult. But in your example, about god, that is an example of yes and. A: I believe in god. B: Yes (I affirm that you are speaking truth) AND your statement is stupid or uneducated or whatever because i know that there is no god. So I need a better example.
Me: I think that whether or not the "yes" is an affirmation depends on multiple factors, including how it's delivered, what follows it, and how it's heard by the receiver. In that example, I think that the words 'and that's stupid' undermines any affirming effect of the word 'yes.' From an actor's perspective, person B did affirm the reality that A has that opinion, but from a life perspective, B did not affirm A as a person because B negatively judged A for having that opinion. And I think that in the context of life this is relevant, because I think that the goal of improvisation in life is collaborative communication. Totally my personal opinion.

I was grateful to Tim for asking a great question about this subtle nuance of "Yes, and." While there are many people who consider "Yes and" to be the core principle of improv, if you look into the improv literature, you will find that there are plenty of people who disagree with that opinion for various reasons, including this potential disconnect between words and intention. In my workshops, participants have pointed out that you can say "Yes, and" while expressing negative sentiments, and you can say "Yes, but" while expressing supportive thoughts. Yes, both of these observations are true, AND I believe that this observation raises our awareness that the INTENTION of "Yes, and" (accept and add) is most important; the WORDS "Yes, and" are merely a convenient approximation, and must be used thoughtfully.

Here is another misuse of "Yes, and," brought to you by CenturyLink, whom I am neither endorsing or not endorsing — they just happened to make a commercial earlier this year with Paul Giamatti that uses the WORDS "Yes, and," but butchers the intention of it by turning it into a question to "pimp" someone else for the answer. That's actually the antithesis of what "Yes, and" should mean. 

Paul Giamatti: Switch to CenturyLink Prism TV and get the same great channels cable gives you, without having to deal with cable.
Dad: Yes. And?
Paul: And ... there's whole home DVR, plus tons of on demand options [...]
Mom: Yes. And?
Paul: Why do you guys keep saying that?
Kid: It's the first rule of improv.
Dad: By saying yes, and, we accept the reality created by our comedy partners, Paul.

What Dad said is ALMOST true, but saying 'yes, and' isn't enough — doing 'yes, and' is what accepts the reality created by our partners. So Dad and Mom aren't using it right. If Paul makes a statement, and Dad responds with "Yes, and ... " it should be followed with a statement by Dad that contributes to the conversation, so that Paul isn't stuck doing all the work, which is what is happening here. The fam is putting Paul on the spot, basically interrogating him and making him come up with all the answers.** The intention of "Yes, and" on stage is that each scene partner takes turns making contributions, or offers, to the scene. "And" is not a question to be flipped back at the other person; "And" prefaces a statement that moves the conversation forward.

So there you go - some reflections on the subtleties of what appears to be such a simple concept! Big thanks to Tim for asking great questions and getting this conversation going. And the next time you hear the words "Yes, and" in conversation, remember:

"When words and actions don't align, The intention of "Yes, and" can be maligned."

— Belinda


*Right now, my personal facebook page is mostly filled with stuff about my dog, food, Hamilton, and Game of Thrones.

** I think that the use of his name at the end of the last sentence is particularly condescending, also adding to the unsupportive feeling of the conversation conveyed by the actors. Also, just in case you are thinking I am a stick in the mud, I totally get that this is just a commercial trying to be funny. I swear I actually do have a sense of humor. Really! I do!