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‘Yes, and’

Most people and teams default to some variation of “no” or “yes, but.” The alternative is your ticket to resilience and peace.

‘Yes, and’
Applied improvisation emphasizes collaboration between scene members instead of competition.

In rapidly changing and uncertain circumstances, the practice of “Yes, and” and the related principles of improvisational theater provide a refreshing and hopeful alternative to the human tendency to react based on fear or a desire to maintain control.

When it comes to being present in the moment, letting go and trusting the process, and adapting to whatever life gives us, we have much to learn from stage performers and practitioners of applied improvisation. Applied improvisation, or improv for short, is simply taking the beliefs, behaviors and techniques from the world of improv and applying them to business, relationships and life.

What excites us as coaches and consultants to the veterinary profession is our realization that by mastering the art of improvisation, we all will be much better equipped to adapt and navigate successfully through both normal and tumultuous times.

Here’s what we know to be true about improv:

  • Practicing improvisation will teach you to accept uncertainty and ambiguity as the conditions in which you must learn and work.
  • It will cultivate an other-oriented sensibility within you that is geared toward empathy and collaboration, which builds trust.
  • It results in stronger relationships that support and enable innovation, team-based care and excellent client communication.

In an unpredictable world, the simple principles of improv might be your ticket to a greater ability to rebound from setbacks, cope with stress and disappointment, and thrive in times of disruption.

The Power of “Yes, and”

“Yes, and” is the guiding philosophy for improvisational theater and the common goal that each player supports. “Yes, and!” — those are two simple yet powerful words. In application, they are foundational to collaborative teamwork, creativity and innovation. And in our experience presenting to veterinary audiences, “yes, and” is a concept that humans intuitively connect with and can easily understand.

In his book “Getting to ‘Yes And’: The Art of Business Improv,” Bob Kulhan defines each component:

  • “Yes”: Represents unconditional acceptance without judging or prejudging the idea or the person talking. It sounds something like this: “I hear what you are saying. You have my undivided attention. I am fully committed to listening to you and understanding you to the best of my ability.”
  • “And”: Means you take the expressed idea and build directly on it. It represents the building of a bridge to your authentic perspective — to your unique voice and your honest reaction to whatever is being presented. It might sound like this: “This is how I can relate to you. This is how I can support you. This is how I can be of service to you. This is how I am grateful to you for sharing this with me.”

“Yes” can be a sticking point for some people, so let’s be clear: Unconditional acceptance is not the same as unequivocal agreement. As corporate trainer Galen Emanuele puts it, “It’s possible to say ‘yes’ to a person and ‘no’ to an idea.” With “yes,” you don’t have to act on every idea offered, but you do have to give every idea a chance to be acted on. This simple idea has amazing power and potency to improve interpersonal communication, negotiation and conflict resolution. The “and” shows that you are contributing and that you will help to move the conversation forward, even if you don’t agree with what your partner has offered.

“Yes, and” and Mindfulness

Used together, “yes, and” can be applied outwardly by being open or curious, by suspending judgment and by showing empathy, and inwardly through self-acceptance and self-compassion. Adopting an attitude of “yes, and” helps develop mindfulness, a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts, feelings and external circumstances from a distance without judging them good or bad.

Being mindful helps make you aware not only of your behavior but also how the behavior influences others. And that’s critically important in improv, just like it is in the workplace, since success depends on the ensemble (or your practice team) performing well together, not just as individual contributors. Therefore, in improv, it’s essential to “make your partner look good.” This requires letting go of your ego and suspending judgment to “serve the scene” or the greater good.

“Yes, and” Is a Team Sport

In reality, most people and teams default to some variation of “no” or “yes, but.” They frequently discount, reject, contradict or ignore their partner’s offers and inputs. Making “yes, and” an element of your group or team’s culture is a means of respecting and celebrating individual perspectives. It allows voices to be heard and, in doing so, it creates a culture that celebrates diverse opinions and ideas. It increases listening, builds relationships and enhances engagement.

Applied improvisation emphasizes collaboration between scene members instead of competition, a skill set that is increasingly important in the team-based delivery of client communication and patient care. It is both a process and a tool that involves spontaneity, unattachment to individual agendas, both inward and outward awareness, listening, and the constructive use of “mis-takes” as learning opportunities. Like performing advanced diagnostics and procedures intended to deliver best-in-class clinical outcomes, applied improv takes practice to master. The good news is that it’s fun to practice.

What I Like About That

Here’s an opportunity for you to practice “yes, and” with colleagues or friends. It comes from the book “Applied Improvisation: Leading, Collaborating and Creating Beyond the Theatre,” edited by Theresa Robbins Dudeck and Caitlin McClure.

1. Form small groups of three to eight people.

2. Inform each group that it is now a product design team. It will design a new product, such as a toaster or sofa, using a specific procedure. Now:

  • One person adds one feature to the product.
  • The person to the left will say, “What I like about that is …” and finish this sentence based on something in the partner’s offer. Then the person adds another feature to the same product.
  • The next person to the left will say, “What I like about that is …” and add another feature, and then so on around the circle.

3. Tell the groups that two additional variables exist.

  • They have infinite resources.
  • The laws of physics do not apply.

4. For each product designed, make sure each person has several chances to contribute.

5. Debrief the experience using these questions:

  • What was easy or difficult about having to say, “What I like about that …”?
  • What surprised you?
  • What is the difference between accepting and agreement?
  • What did your group have to do to be successful?
  • How did this process compare to how you normally communicate at work?
  • What would be different if you spent one day responding to everything you hear with “What I like about that is …”?

Embedded in these debrief questions is a wonderful opportunity for you to learn more about yourself and your partners and the things that either help or hinder you from fully embracing “yes, and.” And maybe like us, you can’t help but be drawn to the sense of possibility in that last question. What, indeed, might be different if we lived in a world where “What I like about that is …” was our default way of being?

We encourage you to seek ways to practice “yes, and” in your workplace, relationships and life. It’s a guaranteed path to more resilience and peace.

Go With the Flow co-columnist Trey Cutler is an attorney specializing in veterinary business matters. Co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders, a company offering leadership and coaching services. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.


Watch these two inspiring TED videos that focus on improvisation and “yes, and.”

  • “The Way of Improvisation,” by Dave Morris: bit.ly/2V9YbEC
  • “Two Words That Can Change the World,” by Karen Tilstra: bit.ly/3ack3n1