5 Ways the ‘Yes, And’ Improv Technique Can Help You at Work—While Protecting Your Boundaries

Photo: Getty Images/10'000 Hours
Improv comedy is often a punch line in its own right, calling to mind cringey scenes of aspiring actors pantomiming, say, a picnic on the moon. Some would say karaoke is to singing what improv is to comedy: accessible to every person, though few people do it well.

But, when improv comedy is done right, it’s magic. It showcases people working together to create something connected, coherent, and hilarious—out of nothing. And it doesn't have to stay limited to comedy alone. One of the core ideas of improv, "yes, and," stands to improve your work life, too.

People often assume from the improv technique's name itself that “yes, and” prescribes taking on more and more. That you can never say no. That you always have to agree. None of those misunderstandings could be further from the truth.

At its core, “yes, and” is a guideline that specifies folks listen deeply, acknowledge someone else’s reality, and then build upon their point of view. It’s a beautiful idea that I use often in my executive coaching work. When applied in work settings, the "yes, and" improv technique can help you improve your career while protecting your boundaries.

5 ways the "yes, and" improv technique can improve your work life

1. It spurs creativity and innovation

Consciously or not, we’re often looking for reasons why something won’t work: “We should institute a monthly happy hour.” "Yes, but, we don’t have the budget. No one has the time. Leadership won’t buy in."

If you shift your thinking—and your actual language—from yes, but to yes, and, you'll be better equipped to navigate obstacles and generate new ideas.

If you shift your thinking—and your actual language—from yes, but to yes, and, you'll be better equipped to navigate obstacles and generate new ideas. Using the happy hour example above, here's how the power of "yes, and" can help: "Yes, and, we should plan the happy hour as a potluck, so we don’t have to spend any budget. And we should do it during our regularly scheduled weekly meeting time, since everyone is already planning to attend. And we should ask a different leader every month to be our guest of honor, so they’re more integrated in both the event and the team."

If someone presents a challenge at work, you can “yes, and” them in order to solve problems and generate ideas, versus finding more reasons why something won’t work.

2. It helps you say “no” by saying “yes” to something else

Let’s imagine your boss asks you to take on an additional project, on top of your already full workload. Your instinct might be to shrug your shoulders and accept the extra work, or push back with a clear "no" to protect your boundaries.

But here’s how a “yes, and” response might look: “Yes, I totally hear that this is a priority, and it’ll have an important impact on the team.” Here, the yes acknowledges the manager's point of view.

From there, the "and" half of the "yes, and" technique works as the conversation piece: “And I want to find a way to get this done, even with my already-full workload. Can we find a way to prioritize, or get creative about my workload together?” By building on what your boss is asking you to do, you can find a solution that works for you both.

Examples of how to use the "yes, and" improv technique at work:

  • When you don’t want to go to the Friday night happy hour: “[Yes] I love the idea of spending time together outside of our meetings. [And] while I can’t make it this time, can we take 30 minutes on Monday to get out of the office for a coffee break to catch up?”
  • When you're tired of being the person in your leadership meeting to always take notes: “[Yes] I know how important it is to capture our thoughts and next steps. [And] I was thinking I could start a note-taking rotation, so everyone takes a turn.”

With the "yes," you acknowledge another person’s premise or need and then build, add, or find a creative way to meet that need with the "and." You can achieve this without just taking more on yourself.

3. It makes you a better ally, by amplifying others

Amplifying peers' voices at work is an important allyship behavior, particularly given research showing historically excluded or underrepresented groups, like Black women, are more likely to be ignored than members of the white majority. The “yes, and” mentality can help to address this.

For example, let's say your co-worker suggests a great solution to combat a supply shortage by widening the supplier-source pool. An inclusive response might look like this: “Yes, I love your idea of sourcing from more suppliers. And that idea makes me think we can reach out to our current network to see who they’d recommend.”

A less-inclusive response might be moving straight to your solution for implementing the idea without first acknowledging your co-worker's input, leaving them feel ignored. By giving credit while building momentum, you ensure every voice is heard, which promotes inclusion, belonging, and psychological safety.

4. It builds stronger relationships

It feels good to be heard, and we tend to feel positive toward people who listen to us. When you acknowledge and then build on someone’s idea by using the "yes, and" technique, they're more likely to feel heard and experience positive vibes toward you.

5. It makes you feel more positive

When you say “yes, and,” you’re demonstrating positivity because you're operating under the premise that something will work, so you’re adding to it. Which, thanks to the self-fulfilling prophecy effect, is more likely to actually make you feel more positively toward whatever you’re “yes, and-ing.”

Skeptical that you’ll be able to negotiate a tough contract? Respond to yourself with “yes, and”" “Yes, it’ll be tough, and I have the right team and skills to do it” or “Yes, I’ll be able to negotiate favorable terms, and I’ll do it by finding common ground.” You’ll feel more positively because you’re thinking positively, whether you were trying to do so or not.

Regardless of how you feel about improv comedy, it's no joke that the simple "yes, and" improv technique has the power to boost how you feel about work and boost your career in the process. It doesn't require you to take on more or compromise your boundaries, but simply work with a more open mind, willingness for collaboration, and positive outlook.

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