I know – ‘wait, what?’ But hear me out.
This week has put me into a variety of unanticipated situations in which playing the “Yes, And” rule by the book simply would not have worked. It’s much easier to say yes to an opportunity (i.e. going out with some friends, helping someone with their work load) than it is to say yes to a concept that you wholeheartedly disagree with. Think of your hot-button issues: abortion, gay rights, government spending, Obamacare, etc. Although two characters in an improv scene would be expected to share the same stance on these topics (because people don’t enjoy arguing about them in real life, let alone paying to watch it happen on stage), in the real world it’s much more likely that such conversations elicit tension (although that may be an overstatement). I cannot accept that applying the “Yes, And” rule means that I should say “Yes” unconditionally and toss my convictions to the curb. How is that good advice for life?
Sometimes on stage, it’s more important to “Yes, And” the improviser than it is to “Yes, And” the character. Consider the following improv situation:
Joe: “You have it in your pocket!”
Ryan(immediately, flustered, clearly lying): “Nu-uh!”
Regardless of what “it” is, by the character of Ryan effectively saying “No, I don’t,” the improviser playing Ryan is saying “Yes, I do, and I am lying/don’t want you to know about it.” Try another one on for size:
Rebecca: “Send him to jail! He’s the murderer!”
George: “No, please! It wasn’t me!”
Even though George said “no,” he played a genuine response to the situation at hand. That is, he said “Yes, I accept that you are someone with the power to send me to jail,” to the improviser playing Rebecca and he added “and I thoroughly dislike this idea because I am innocent.”
We can “yes, and” the situation or the reality of our partner without necessarily agreeing with everything that they say. Take, for instance, my recent discussion with my friend, K. I haven’t talked to K in a while. Certain life circumstances and a lack of exposure to alternative viewpoints have led each of us to become more polarized in our opposing opinions on said hot-button issues. So, when we inevitably stumbled upon discussing them, I was uncomfortable. I just wanted my time with K to go well; I didn’t want to cause any disturbance because I was excited at the rare opportunity for us to interact. By the same time, I’m trying to make sure people know the real Liz (see my previous post) and I also feel strongly enough in my opinions that I wasn’t willing to blindly accept K’s points. But should I challenge them? Aren’t we supposed to avoid that in order to foster good relationships/improv? What’s the difference between challenge and conflict?
Conflict is being closed-minded; it’s hearing only the weaknesses of K’s arguments and ignoring their strengths. Challenge means accepting that regardless of whether I like or personally agree with what K is saying, it is her reality. She is not simply saying these things; instead, they are core tenets of her unique K-ness (which I adore). I am not going to change her mind, and she won’t change mine. But if we are respectful of each other’s right and ability to make an informed decision, we can learn a lot more about one another as individuals. For example, although I disagree with protesting outside Planned Parenthood, I understand why K is personally so passionate. I understand that this “protest” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be on television. And I understand better some of the very real reasons why people, in general, might be upset with Planned Parenthood. I hope that K heard my points as well; among others, that regardless of where you stand on the issue of abortion or sex-education, Planned Parenthood offers a lot of health services for people (men and women!) who would otherwise not receive them. Maybe there’s some ideal middle ground, but I’ll leave that planning to the policy-makers and entrepreneurs. By agreeing to disagree while still acknowledging the disagreement, the tension between K and I almost entirely dissipated and remarkably, I felt closer to her than ever.
Here’s a more humorous example. It’s best to “Yes, And” with a “no” when a friend inconveniences you and feels bad about it because there is no point in making him or her feel worse. So the other night, my friend Y gets sick after a night out of drinking and fun. Folks, we’ve all been there. And I am indefinitely indebted to the people who have taken care of me when I’ve been at my worst (you know who you are.) Okay, watching him vomit is not how I expected/desired to spend my evening, but there was no way that I could have just let him suffer on his own. I don’t know how other people react to sick, drunk people, but I cannot imagine a situation in which I wouldn’t take care of that person, given that I have the capacity to do so.
Of course Y felt awful the next day, thanking me and apologizing profusely. How productive would it have been for me to respond to Y’s “I’m so sorry, I’m such a jerk” statement true to “Yes, And” form? Not very. In this case, my natural response (“Please don’t worry about it, it’s fine”) was an indirect “no” (“No, you are not a jerk and have no reason to be sorry”). But it was an expression of support, which is what “Yes, And” is meant to do anyhow. I did not say yes to the situation. (Dear Y, please let’s not do that again. Thanks, Liz). I also did not say yes to the sentiment. (Dear Y, I could never think you were a jerk. Best, Liz). But I did say yes to the relationship I have with Y. (Dear Y, I’ve got your back, because we’re friends and that’s what friends do. Yours, Liz). I think I even was better about including the “and”! (Dear Y, Yes, I have your back, and this is the type of person I am. Take care, Liz).
“Yes, and” is meant to facilitate cohesion in scenes and amongst improvisers. In my life, it has fostered more cooperation and empathy. I find this to be particularly the case when I’ve “Yes, And”ed with a “nope.”