Lead with “Yes, And…”
One of my happiest teaching memories is teaching theater and improv to 8th graders in Egypt in the late 1990s. I’ve never laughed so much while teaching in my life.
One game we’d often play was built on the principle of “Yes, and…” If you aren’t familiar with this improv game, it’s essentially each players’s job to practice building upon and working with whatever is lobbed their way, instead of blocking, correcting, or rejecting it. For example:
If your partner says that you have lovely purple eyes, you accept it and add on that they double as your secret mind-control tool.
If your partner mentions you have four arms, you accept it and add on that they sprouted right during pregnancy as an evolutionary adaptation preparing you for parenthood.
Deceptively simple, the practice of “Yes, and…” is also an incredibly useful way of bringing the principles of acceptance and collaboration into our relationships and conversations.
Acceptance: The Yes.
Let’s say you’re having a conversation with an upset employee who’s asking for something that you can’t give them, like a change in their schedule, a new office, an adjustment to their job responsibilities, or a pay raise.
The key to leading this conversation is to start by saying yes to what they’re presenting to you.
If they say, “I really can’t stand working with Mary and need to be placed on a new team,” and you begin with “well, that isn’t possible so I’m going to need you to make the best of things,” this person may leave feeling resentful, angry, or shut down.
However, if you respond with an affirmation, “Yes, it sounds like working with Mary is quite challenging for you and you’re looking for a way to address things…” you’ll be providing this person the experience of being seen, known, heard, and respected.
The first step then, is to practice offering a “yes” whenever things come your way. “Yes” is about affirmation and a willingness to work with others — as they are.
Notice the part of you that wants to block, reject, change, and resist things; the part of you that’s trying to change the world, change other people, and improve yourself relentlessly; the part of you that wants to educate and mold other people and yourself into some ideal version.
This part of you is exhausted.
Help that part relax, perhaps gently reminding it to float downstream on the river instead of trying to paddle upstream so earnestly.
Acceptance frees up your energy by keeping your attention on what you can control: your response to things, which brings us to the second step:
Collaboration: The And.
While starting with “yes” lays the foundation for trust and respect, moving to the “and” is where the magic of co-creation really kicks in.
“And” is a bridge: it joins two things together. “But,” on the other hand, can shut things down and stall us out.
Using the example from above, notice how a conventional response — using “but” — sets up a subtle block in the conversation: “Yes, I hear you want to be placed on a new team, but that’s just not possible.”
Notice how “but” negates the first part of the sentence and deflates further conversation.
Instead, you can build upon their request by saying,“Yes, I hear that you would rather not work with Mary, and while it’s not possible to move you to a new team, I would like to explore other ways I might be able to help.”
In this second example, using “and” to build upon what your employee is longing for opens up the conversation and leads it in a new direction, one that invites new ideas for how to address and care for someone’s needs.
The essence of collaboration lies in being attuned to the individuals who are playing and staying aware and responsive to everyone’s needs, building upon each person’s contributions. It doesn’t mean you have to like or agree with whatever you’re fielding. It simply means seeing everything as a stepping stone to the next thing.
Another way that using “and” can be transformative and effective is in bringing together seemingly opposite points of view.
- “Yes, people have a right to freedom of choice, and we also have a right to be protected from harm.”
- “Yes, I hear your desire for a collective, consistent response to this crisis, and I want it to be safe, effective, and trustworthy.”
- “Yes, I want to support you in having more work-life balance, and I want to trust everyone on our team will show up for their scheduled shifts.”
“And” helps us bridge differences, make connections, and see our shared humanity and shared needs. Once we decide to let go of our defensiveness, our fears, our resistance, and instead start working with life on its terms, we free ourselves up for more play and creativity in all aspects of our lives.
Dr. Yvette Erasmus is a psychologist, teacher, and consultant who specializes in transformative education for human healing and growth. Synthesizing mind-body medicine, somatic experiencing, diversity and inclusiveness, nonviolent communication, and integral-relational-cultural psychology, Dr. Erasmus integrates core insights from multiple wisdom traditions and offers various programs for community learning as well as one-on-one consulting. To learn more, visit yvetteerasmus.com.