Yes, and…

A central technique of improvisational comedy is “Yes, and…” When the person you’re on stage with steers the scene in a particular direction you have to say “yes”–acknowledging their contribution–and then “and…”–taking it one step further. For example:

–I can’t believe we have to fold all these paper cranes for your sister’s wedding by morning.
–Yes, and me with both my hands in casts!

The point is flexibility. The point is what you don’t do. You don’t just breeze past what they said, letting it drop like a pebble into a pond, because then the scene has no momentum, no build. This is risky because in tying yourself to another person’s pronouncements you surrender the ability to sculpt a joke. You have to trust that something funny will come out of just the two of you being up there and present for one another. This is a reasonable bet, though, because in comedy as in so many other things risk is all bound up with reward. I have a friend who is convinced that improv experience is her secret weapon for landing jobs because it has rendered her unflappable in interviews. For her there’s no such thing as a curve ball. “Is it true that you left your last place of employment because you burned the building down?” “Yes, I did. And…”

Back when I taught college classes I lived by the “Yes, and…” ethos. It was a point of pride that I would never brush off a student’s question. No matter how off the wall or uninformed, I had to stop and feel a beat of consideration before answering them fully. Sometimes my reply was no more than a polite version of “It’d be a waste of time for me to try and address that” but even then I had to mean it in the moment.

The same ethos applies to ideas in general. Your worldview should be difficult to derail, but at the same time there must always be the real possibility of derailment. You should be pulled willingly into an objection, supple and elastic, convinced you’re right, but with a tiny part hoping to be shown wrong. Crucially, you should not inhabit a fortified system to which objections are nonsensical by definition, because then you never have the opportunity to respond to someone with “Yes, and…” Instead all you’ll be able to do is stare blankly until the other person finishes and then resume with, “As I was saying…” This is a sure sign that you are mired in a dogma.

How do you withstand a hurricane? Two ways. Way number one: be a concrete pylon with a steel core that wouldn’t budge an inch in winds ten times as fierce. Way number two is that you’re a pliable weed close to the ground that whips around like mad when the storm is raging and returns roughly upright as soon as it stops. Both ways work equally well, but it’s the second one that allows you to move.

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2 Responses to Yes, and…

  1. Pingback: Come Out And Play | Corner Cases

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    And old friend applies the same principle to childrearing. “Yes, and…” is the gift that keeps on giving.

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