Yes And

The number one rule of improv acting is something called “Yes, and . . .” It means that when you’re doing a scene, you have to answer every line delivered by your partners with the phrase “Yes, and . . .”You don’t need to say those exact words, of course, but the point is your response must carry the same open-endedness that is implied by those two words. Responding this way forces you to do two things: (1) you must accept whatever they’re saying and (2) you must expand on it.

Improv actors know that the best way to kill a scene and ruin the mood is to greet a person’s idea with a big fat NO. Especially in an anxiety-inducing area such as an improvised scene with spectators, ideas are fragile little things. They die if you don’t treat them with love, and your partner will feel like a failure if the idea doesn’t survive. There’s a certain buzz in the air that amplifies all emotions. Negativity is not one you want to encourage.

I had a professor in college who understood this rule. The class was early English Lit, and whenever someone raised their hand to give some boneheaded piece of commentary, she would invariably respond with an emphatic “Yeah! And it’s the same way with…. ” or “Sure, and that also means….” No matter how stupid or tangential the comment, she made sure everything was a launching point toward something else– that is, the thing she actually wanted to talk about. She was an expert at directing the conversation toward the point she was trying to make, but she did it without ever telling anyone they were wrong. If teaching is, to some extent, the act of selling a product to the students, and convincing them that the subject and the teacher’s ideas are worth contemplation and study, then the last thing you want to do, like in any business situation, is bruise the customer’s ego by making them feel stupid. It will only make them tense up and tune out. Offend them and they won’t buy what you’re selling.

In my life, my instinct is always to disagree. In conversation, even if I’m in complete agreement with someone, as soon as they display a shred of arrogance or even simple confidence in their opinion, I snap to attention and take the opposite side. Politics, religion, art, music, culture, style, food, whatever.  I can’t help it. I love to play devil’s advocate. I enjoy the mental strain of holding a position that I might disagree with. I love thinking about the logic of their argument and try to poke a hole in it. Taking ideas to their extreme conclusions, exercising the highest form of rationality I can muster– it gets me excited. I value consistency and rigor, and I can be too unforgiving when people don’t share those values.

Some say these types of rhetorical gymnastics are a valuable skill, and I don’t disagree. When I’m alone in my room, reading a book, I wouldn’t have it any other way than to scrutinize the ideas I’m consuming. Or when I’m having an earnest discussion about business or art or culture with a friend,this type of analysis is the rule of the day. I play it like a game, defending some awful stance on economics, for instance, not necessarily because I agree, but because it’s interesting.

But sometimes I find myself lacking in the tact department. I forget that there’s a time to be intellectually rigorous and honest about my thoughts (usually when I’m alone), and there’s a time to be nice, diplomatic, and just be a good conversationalist and make people feel good (usually every other time).  All too often, my need to disagree just annoys people and causes me to put my foot in my mouth. The truth is I don’t even like talking about hot-button issues like politics. It’s generally polarizing and unproductive, and it’s especially awkward when I catch myself defending a position that I don’t even agree with. Like an actor who misses his line or who flubs an opportunity for a funny ad lib, the conversation grinds to a halt. The air escapes from the balloon, and the discourse flatlines. Elvis leaves the building. Most people just take my opinions at face value, because why the hell wouldn’t they? So  I misrepresent myself and I look foolish.

My solution is to evoke the “Yes and…” rule, and apply it to my life. Even though I’m not an actor or a salesman, it’s a useful tool. Any time I’m not trying to change someone’s mind (most of the time), I respond to everything with positivity and excitement, no matter what my true feelings. I can nerd out and be pedantic later. I can keep my opinions to myself. For now, the rules are:  be enthusiastic, be accepting of their ideas no matter how irrational, and always respond with “Yes, and…”

Is it lying? Maybe, but people seem to like it. It makes people feel understood, which is all anyone really wants anyway.