Yes….and: Lessons from Improv

When a new idea or concept comes to me, repetitively and from different people or from totally different directions, I pay attention. I’ve had that experience recently and I am so thankful to be reminded of something that I wanted to “hang on to”.

yes and

While at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, I attended a fun class called  Improv for Storytelling. The instructor, Dan Stabb, works in improv and he used techniques to free us from ourselves and move us into creativity. His class became so much more than that for me, however, as I listened and participated and took notes.

Dan led us through three exercises, partnering each of us with someone we didn’t know. In the first exercise, each person made a suggestion to their partner, such as “Let’s have Italian food for dinner.” No matter what was said, the partner answered, “No” and then made another suggestion, to which the first person answered no. We did this for several minutes, making suggestions and answering with no. What was immediately apparent was how the word no limits creativity and stops the flow of thoughts and words. No hits the reset button in the conversation, which then becomes stilted and awkward. We all quickly ran out of things to suggest.

Next, Dan had the first person make a suggestion, and this time, the partner answered, “Yes…but.” So the conversations went like this. “Let’s have Italian food for dinner.” “Yes…but, let’s have German food instead.” “Yes…but, I would rather get carry out anyway.” And on and on the conversation went, for several more minutes. We all agreed these experiences were better….and yet, using the word “but” negatively shifted the energy of the conversation, narrowed down the possibilities and still felt awkward.

Finally, we were instructed to make suggestions and this time, answer each suggestion with “Yes…and”. These conversations were so fun! They flowed, and creativity was encouraged. “Let’s have Italian food for dinner.” “Yes, and….let’s dress up in vintage clothing!” “Yes….and let’s invite all our friends to join us!” “Yes….and let’s go dancing after dinner and stay out all night!” The energy in the room expanded, along with the creativity, and laughter and excitement filled the room.

I was impressed with the exercise, and not just because it freed creativity and ideas. I saw the amazing potential for those two simple words….Yes, and….in regular conversations and in my own thinking process. And then, after I returned home, I promptly forgot about the improv class, until a couple of days ago. Scrolling through Facebook I came across an article about using those same two words when working with Alzheimer’s patients.

The piece was about drawing Alzheimer’s patients into conversation, rather than halting their words by saying “no” and trying to correct their perceptions. My heart is still tender toward those suffering with this disease, after watching the movie Still Alice. I was intrigued by the article. Rather than forcing someone who is losing memories, or reverting to an earlier time, to come back into reality, the author of the article suggested entering the patient’s reality instead, and gently leading her out. Or staying in her world with her and just enjoying the experience and the person. The doorway for this journey was using “Yes…and”.

A woman who is confused says, “I want to go home. My parents must be missing me.” (She IS home…and her parents have been dead for many years.) Correcting her statement only brings more confusion, because she doesn’t remember that she is in her home, with the man she has been married to for 55 years. In her mind, she is 16 years old. “Yes….and your parents know where you are. Tell me about your mom…tell me about your dad.” How much more kind, to enter into her reality, rather than trying to force her into mine.

The other application for “Yes…and” is to use the words during an argument. Imagine how that discussion would go if all parties answered each statement with, “Yes…and”. Using no….yes, but…or defending myself results in further argument rather than resolution. I intend to remember this, the next time I find myself wanting to take the defense. However, I had the opportunity to try the technique out when my mind strayed down a trail of thought this evening, as I was tackling the flower beds next to the house.

It is hard work, cleaning up these neglected beds and preparing them for re-planting. I began to berate myself….and then, I remembered. Here is how the internal conversation went: I should never have used the ground cloth…roots have grown through it and that makes removing it so difficult. Yes….and I’ve learned a lot about gardening in the past four years. Yes….and I can do this, a little at a time. Yes…and the finished garden border will be so beautiful. Yes…and I will enjoy it very much.

I kept working…and then, I hit a wall, becoming hot and physically exhausted with all the digging, pulling, and hoeing, and discouraged by the slow progress. When I inadvertently ended up with a face full of dirt, I considered scrapping the idea and letting grass grow in the beds, instead of flowers. Back to Yes…and. “This is too hard. Just let the grass grow and mow it. Yes…and that is one possible solution. Yes…and it is my decision.” I looked at the 35 flowering plants on the front porch, waiting to be transplanted into the ground. Yes….and I love the flowers. Yes…and I can take this project a step at a time. Yes…and the joy is in the journey.”

I am grateful for this technique, for Dan who introduced it to me, and for the Facebook article that reminded me that I wanted to further explore this idea. I was able to see this evening how even in an argument with myself, using Yes…and led me, gently, where I most wanted to go, without self reproach. That is the true beauty of Yes…and. It shifts the energy, expands and opens, instead of constricting and closing down. I don’t want to close. I want to be open. Yes…and a wonderfully simple yet effective way to do that has been given to me, from the world of improv.

yes and lessons from improv