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The Two Words You Should Avoid (Especially While Innovating)

3 min read

“Yes, and” does not mean that you agree with everything other people are saying. It means that you do listen and take seriously their suggestions before accepting them, building on them or dismissing them.

It’s an exciting, nerve-wracking moment. There I stand, in front of the radio studio, and the short radio play I wrote a few months ago is nearly finished. From actors to sounds effects and music, it’s really taking shape. We’re spending these last four hours putting the final polish on it. Petra, the producer, and Boris, the sound engineer, are already there, smiling with anticipation. Despite the fact there is no sunlight in the studio, there’s lots of energy and excitement.

As soon as I walk in, Boris says, “Listen to this! I tried something new for the beginning of the play at home, and I think that if we add an explosion into the sound of the crowds, it will nicely link it with the rest.” He plays the first 30 seconds to us.

Yes, but that is just too much drama for the beginning—and it sounds little bit silly,” I say.

Then Petra chimes in, “I had a great idea this morning in the shower. I think it would be great to swap the bit with the can-can music with the moment Kryštof talks about football, it would make a better flow.”

Yes, but that would mean that the music is directly before the bit about Christmas,” I answer, “and that seems a sort of “cliché.”

And that was it. With just two words, the energy was gone. The excitement had dissipated. Only 5 minutes into our 4-hour work session, Boris and Petra are no longer smiling, and even I am not in the mood any more. I don’t even feel like sharing my ideas with them.

You see, what I had forgotten in that moment is the highly corrosive impact of “yes, but.” The two words that drip of negativity and quickly dismiss new ideas.

“Yes, but” is a term used—and avoided—in improv.

As my colleague Kate Nugent, a long time improv theatre practitioner, writes in her blog:  “To start a scene, your partner might enter and make what we call in improv, “an offer.” They might burst onto the stage and say, “Mother’s drunk again!” You have a choice. You can completely accept and build on that idea (perhaps by saying something like, “Oh, no, and she’s due on the Space Shuttle in less than an hour!”) OR you can make a dismissive statement that brings the scene to a screeching halt by preventing anyone else from building on the idea (in this case saying perhaps, “No I just saw her, she’s just tired”). This is called “blocking.””

So what could I have done in the radio studio to make the next 3 hours and 55 minutes more productive than the first 5 minutes? Instead of “blocking” with “yes, but,” I could have used the power of “Yes, and.”

“Yes, and” as a response to what your partner has to say on stage, is a key principle in improv theatre: “Yes” as in “I am really listening and hearing your idea” and “and I am building on it.” “Yes, and” does not mean that you agree with everything other people are saying. It means that you do listen and take seriously their suggestions before accepting them, building on them or dismissing them.

It makes me wonder – if I wasn’t so quick to dismiss ideas, would the studio session been more productive? Did I miss out on an idea that could have been worthwhile—and even better than what we used?

As Bob Poynton puts it in his book on improvisation,

“If we accept ideas rather than block them they have the chance to go somewhere. We set in motion an evolutionary process and our first ideas become the parents (then grandparents and great-grandparents) of a great number of other ideas. This is why it is important not to judge them immediately.”

It’s less about control. And more about collaboration – listening more and seeing opportunity everywhere.

So now I put it to you. How many times do you use the “yes, but” in a typical day? And what opportunities could you be missing out on?

Can you open up and try the “yes, and” tomorrow?

Hint: the answer doesn’t begin with “yes, but…”

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