In improvisational theatre, audiences can be exposed to what is quite often comedy gold. However, what an audience may not realise is that they are also being exposed to well-oiled collaborations that, in every random and unplanned moment, bring us lessons for how we might create powerful and collaborative interactions in our everyday life.
What is Improvisational Theatre?
Improvisational theatre has no script, and so the magic is created because lines are delivered and responded to on stage in the moment.
With no script, everything that is said on stage has the potential to be random, out of left field and unexpected. No one knows what is likely to be said next, and that is the very thing that makes improvisational theatre such an entertaining art form. Yet, as entertaining as the performance might be to onlookers, its rate of success would not exist without consistent onstage and in-the-moment collaboration from the performers.
This is where those two magical words, “Yes, and…” come in.
In improvisational theatre, the assumption is that the person speaking the random line on stage is making an offer. The person to whom the line is directed then has three steps that their very presence on stage commits them to following:
- Receive the offer
- Accept the offer
- Build on the offer
If we can imagine an improvisational theatre performance in these three steps, Performer 1 might walk on stage and say a random line to Performer 2: “Constable Smith! I am so pleased that you are here!” This is the initial offer.
Performer 2 hears the spoken line, and so we can say that they have received the offer.
Performer 2 may then respond with “I came as soon as I possibly could!” This acceptance of the offer. It is the “Yes” part of “Yes, and…”, effectively saying to Performer 1 “I accept this offer of a line, regardless of what I think about the line or the reality that you are creating with it. I accept it as my boundary and I will work with that”.
Once Performer 2 has verbally accepted the offer, the next step is for Performer 2 to build on the original offer by saying something that is effectively an “…and”. In our imagined scenario, Performer 2 might say “Now, where is the perpetrator?”
With those two little words, “Yes, and…” Performer 2 has accepted that the offer made by Performer 1 was legitimate for where Performer 1 is at, and they have collaboratively built on it, moving the performance forward into another moment.
Performer 2, in building on the original offer, has also created an offer of their own. Performer 1 (or another performer, depending on who the offer is made to) receives, accepts and builds on this new offer, and so the process continues. Each offer is received, accepted as legitimate and built on, until the performance ends.
Every Offer is Legitimate, Regardless of Whether it is Liked
This process seems so simple, and yet there is a lot at stake if the process fails. Imagine what would happen if, for example, Performer 2 did not accept the initial offer as legitimate and instead responded with “You fool! I am not a policeman? I am a rabbit!”? I think it is fair to say that in this case, there would be potential for the flow of the improvisation to be damaged.
It seems important, therefore, that the following two rules be followed at all times:
- The offer must be held as legitimate.
- The offer must be accepted.
It is important to note that the offer does not have to be liked. It simply has to be treated as legitimate and accepted as an offer of the boundaries within which the performers have available to work. This is important. Without legitimacy and acceptance, the improvisational routine would be at risk of becoming a failed collaboration.
And so it seems that what an audience may experience as comedy gold is really a well oiled system of giving and receiving without allowing judgements to get in the way.
How can we apply this process of receiving, accepting and building on offers to our conversations in everyday life?
“Yes, and…” in Conversation
Humans are meaning making machines. In every moment, every situation and every event, we are applying our own meaning based on our previous experiences and learning in life. This means that two people in a situation can have two very different interpretations of the moment. For example, my husband just went to buy us both a coffee. I could make a number of different interpretations about why he did that. I could decide that he just wanted to be nice, or that he is keen to support our local coffee shop, or that he couldn’t be bothered making a coffee, or that he just likes getting out of the house. His interpretation might simply be that he enjoys the coffee from that coffee shop and wanted me to enjoy it too. We all make meaning based on how we are being in any given moment.
Our challenges in conversation can come when the interpretations of the speaker and the interpretations of the listener don’t align. We can then become caught up in a personal fight for our own version of the truth that manifests itself in different ways in conversation. Examples of this might be when we start to argue because we disagree with something, or, when we say something to someone that seems to not be considering them because we are focused on addressing our own concerns in that moment.
What if, instead of fighting for our truth or fighting for our identity, we saw our conversations as an exchange of offers? What if we received the offer, accepted the offer and built on the offer to create a conversation that becomes a collaboration?
Using “Yes, and…” to Respectfully Disagree
One of my social media pet hates is posts along the lines of “If you are not believing in yourself, you are getting in your own way”. I become quite frustrated at statements like this because, as a former self-doubter, I start to live my truth that understanding that we get in our own way and feeling equipped to do something about it are two different thing.
If I was to respond from my position of frustration, it is very likely that my response would not take care of the poster. I would potentially be bashing out words in an attempt to make the poster see the error of their ways. And, if I did this, my actions would be more about taking care of my own needs and identity than about respecting the poster and collaborating with them to bring about other possibilities for the messages that can be taken to self-doubters. This may not be useful for the conversation.
If I wanted to respond in a collaborative way that is more likely to leave the poster feeling legitimate while potentially creating a space of collaboration, I would break it down as follows:
- Find something in the statement that I am happy to agree with (Yes…)
- Build on the post to get my point across (…and).
So, instead of a frustration and anger filled rant, I might respond with something like:
“Yes, not believing in ourselves can be quite challenging, and, as a self-doubter, I wonder what tips others have to offer that would help those of us who suffer from self-doubt to not get in our own way?”
Suddenly, my frustration about the original post becomes not about defending my truth, but about accepting a legitimate offer, and building on that offer with a new offer of additional perspective. I have still offered the possibility that self-doubters might be stuck on how to move forward, however I have not dismissed the thoughts of the other person. I have also not dismissed the possibility that there might be some self-doubters in the world who gain great value from the original poster’s insights. This, I think, is more serving than simply arguing my truth.
What I think is useful about this approach is that it seems to remove our self-focus, allowing us to focus on a collaborative outcome while holding the other person and ourselves as legitimate.
Let’s look at another possibility…
Using “Yes, and…” to Make our Responses Less About Us
Many years ago, I had someone staying at my house. We were preparing to have a number of people over for dinner, and my visitor said “What are you planning to make for dessert”. I reeled off a number of desserts, proud that I was able to put some love and attention into feeding my dinner guests. I remember being heartbroken when my guest responded with “Gosh! That’s a lot of fuss and bother! I wouldn’t be bothered with that much effort!”
At the time, I took this to heart and felt quite judged for my efforts. However, years later, I can see that my visitor was speaking to their own concerns. They weren’t judging me. If anything, they probably felt that this was more work than they would feel comfortable with, and so they automatically spoke to address their own needs.
We all do this at some point in our conversations, because we are constantly making meaning and then taking action from that meaning. However, what if, before we spoke, we paused to ask ourselves what we could say that would hold all parties as legitimate? What if we could take the words of others as an offer, accept the offer and build on it?
Had my guest done that, they might have said:
“It sounds like dessert is under control. You have clearly gone to a lot of effort”.
Similarly, instead of becoming upset about the original comment from my guest and becoming caught up in defending my position, it might have been useful for me to use “Yes, and…” in my reply.
Moods and Emotions and the “Yes, and…” Approach?
In our everyday conversations, we tend to become attached to the meaning that we create. We also tend to attach moods and emotions to those interpretations.
Improvisational theatre seems to work because the performers are genuinely making offers that are about the performance and about giving something useful to the other performers.
With this in mind, what moods and emotions would support a “yes, and…’ approach to conversation, allowing us to genuinely give to both the conversation and those participating in it? What moods and emotions allow us to remove the focus on self while also holding everyone in the conversation as legitimate, including ourselves? What moods and emotions will allow us to give ourselves permission to treat our conversations as a collaboration?
Humans experience many emotions, a very small handful of which appear in the graphic below.
The emotions that are useful for opening up a space of collaboration in conversation are, I think, going to depend somewhat on the individual, the conversation and the situation. For me personally, acceptance, humility, gratitude and dignity feel useful. This may not be the same for everyone.
Perhaps the questions, as we participate in conversations are:
- “What moods and emotions am I experiencing right now?
- What moods and emotions will help me to see this conversation as an offer, accept the offer, and make a new offer?”
Bringing it All Together
We have a choice as to how we participate in conversation. Our previously learned methods, of depending our truth and defending our identity, may not always be useful.
It feels as though there is seeing conversations as an offer and committing to receiving, accepting and building on the offer could be quite powerful in conversation, and potentially also quite freeing.
In applying this approach, I think it is important that we aim to maintain the legitimacy of all parties in the conversations, including ourselves. This is not about dismissing our own opinions and feelings. Rather, it is about looking at our opinions and feelings in the context of the offer that was made to us, and collaboratively presenting those opinions and feelings in a way that holds the previous offer as legitimate whilst also building on the offer. In doing so, we create conversations that become spaces of collaboration, with the effect of reducing or removing much of the suffering that often comes from our convserations.
What would it take, in your next conversation, for you to receive, accept and build on the offer from others?