How Saying “Yes, And” Changed My Life

In my very first post on this blog, I shared a story about the very first time someone told me to “find your voice.” (Missed it? Check it out here) I had just started a new job and, although I had an inkling after that experience, I had no clue the extent of growth and development I was about to experience! I only worked there for about 2.5 years but it was one of the most formative experiences of my career.

One of the first people I met on this job was Phil. Phil was an actor-turned-trainer and had one of the best laughs I had ever heard. He was also well-versed in a type of comedy called improvisation, or improv. I spent the next 18 months or so learning about the principles of improv and how it could make me a better trainer. I also did a fair amount of laughing. It was seriously one of the highlights of my career. Also, look how cute we were (we still are of course)!

Erin & Phil

If improv sounds familiar, it may be because you have seen the show Whose Line Is It Anyway. The actors on the show are improv pros and they perform a variety of sketches, all completely unrehearsed. They get suggestions from the audience and they run with them. In this clip, 2 of the actors (Ryan and Colin) are given a suggestion from the host (Drew Carey) and their instructions are to act it out. The twist? There are 2 audience members that will provide the sound effects for the sketch. Of course, shenanigans ensue – check it out! 🙂

I think this show is HILARIOUS! I have loved it since it came out in 2007, although back then I just loved it because it made me laugh. Now, I see a crucial leadership and faith principle that can help us lead ourselves and others better as well as grow deeper in our faith.

What is it? YES, AND!

Anyone who has done any kind of improv has heard of yes, and. It is a pillar of improvisation. It’s the acceptance principle — when someone in a scene states something, accept it as truth. The “and” part of this principle means to build on that reality that has been set. You saw Colin and Ryan do this in the clip above by setting the scene at the very beginning. One of them begins to “eat” a donut and the other follows suit. Then, when the ladies providing the sound effects didn’t pick up on what was happening, they said “yes, and” and began commenting about how they could chew without any sound. They continue to do this throughout the scene as they adapt to the sound effects that the ladies do eventually provide.

Now, here’s another of my FAVORITE clips from the show. I’ve used this one when I teach “yes, and” to leadership groups. In this clip, we see Colin and Ryan again and they are playing a game where they will create an infomercial with a variety of props to solve a common problem, which is sourced from the audience. The problem? Snoring. Again, shenanigans ensue. Enjoy. 🙂

How did you see “yes, and” play out in that clip? You probably noticed that each time Ryan or Colin would create something, the other would say “yes” by accepting what had been presenting, and adding something of their own. It even happened when Ryan picked up a prop and said it was one of the most important devices in the anti-snoring kit, and that Colin was going to describe it. Colin wasn’t necessarily expecting this but he immediately jumping into “yes, and” action. See, the “yes, and” principle in improv makes scenes funnier and so much more interesting. If Colin had said, “uh, I have no idea what this thing is” the scene would have been over!

Ok, so we can see how improv is great in comedy but what does this all have to do with real life? MaryAnn McKibben Dana has a fantastic perspective on this – she says:

This gets a little trickier in life improv than onstage improv, because life often hands us things that we don’t want to say yes to, and that no one in their right mind would say yes to.

So when we say yes, we’re not saying that we necessarily like it; we’re not saying that we would have chosen it. But if it is what it is, the work of the improviser is to say, “How can I respond to this situation in a way that brings the most wholeness, the most shalom, the most love, grace — whatever words you want to put in there — for the most people involved?”

It’s kind of like the serenity prayer, to accept the things we can’t change, and courage to change the things we can. And that to me is the prayer of the improviser. When we can’t change reality as it’s been presented to us, what can we change and how can we change it in a way that brings about the best “and,” the best “yes” for those people involved, including ourselves?

We can’t change the reality that we find ourselves in. Sometimes it’s our own choices that create our reality… sometimes we had nothing to do with it. But notice what she says there at the very end – “what can we change and how can we change it in a way that brings about the best ‘and,’ the best ‘yes’ for those people involved, including ourselves?” That’s one of the things I love about improv – the focus on US rather than just ME. When two (or more) improv actors walk onto a stage, if they are only focused on their own success, they will fail 100% of the time. I’ve seen it happen. One person is REALLY trying to be funny and have all the best jokes and in that effort, they completely miss what is going on around them. Ego is one of the biggest enemies of good improv. I think it’s one of the biggest enemies of our faith too.

Think about the first church in Acts. The people who made up that church were not theologians. In fact, they were largely illiterate! When Scripture was read, it was read to the community and they listened to it together. When they heard the words, they thought “how are we going to respond to Jesus’ teaching? How are we going to live it out? What does this mean for us?” Tim Gombis, writer of “First Audiences of the New Testament” says,

They did not consider their Christian discipleship as something separable from the community.

I grew up in a remote place where community was everything. I wrote a bit about moving there in my post titled Circles vs. Rows. I believe that my family experienced some of the richest community we’d ever had there. If you’ve ever lived in a really small town, it was very similar. We took care of each other. When I moved back to the U.S. after spending almost my entire childhood there, I experienced some culture shock when I was immersed back into the culture of individual achievement. Not wanting to be left behind, I fell right in line and put my head down, ready to run hard after success. When I look back on those years, I can appreciate the graciousness of God in giving me amazing community as I was running. During those years though, I may have had a superficial appreciation for it but I didn’t truly get it. It wasn’t until I started learning how to say “yes, and” that I began to slow down and look around at the incredible people I was surrounded with. I started to realize that, although individual achievement is not bad, it’s also not the whole story. Every day, we have people around us who help us, support us and guide us whether we want to see it or not. I spent too many years looking over the tops of people’s heads while searching for that next promotion, more money, the bigger place, that man who still hasn’t shown up… the list goes on.

Learning how to say “yes, and” in life means that I am more present with myself, with Jesus, and with those around me. I approach problems with curiosity, not judgment. I ask questions to get to the root of the problem. I am for sure a work in progress but I am forever grateful that I walked into that job 8 years ago and “yes, and” to the adventure!

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