Changing ‘Yes but’ to ‘Yes and’ – Lessons in Life and Problem Solving from Improv and Brainstorming

One of the great lessons from theatre improvization (improv or impro) games is the rule of ‘Yes and’. All too often in life we ‘yes but’ everything. This is especially true of people who solicit advice for their problems only to block any suggestion. Sometimes people don’t want solutions, they just want to justify their position of not doing anything about their problems. Be clear,  ‘Yes but’  always means ‘NO’.

In improv, the basic principle is ‘yes and’. That is, we accept what’s being offered and add something to it. Offers can be anything from words, expressions, body language, descriptions and so on. The idea is to endow your fellow players with qualities and for them to do the same in return. It’s a collaborative, cooperative process. Together you spontaneously create a scenarios and characters. The humour arises from the surprises and not contriving clever lines. It’s not about making yourself look good it’s about making other people in the scene look good.

When first creating scenes in improv it’s common for beginners to block offers. So for instance, a fellow player may say ‘Would you like this balloon?’ Following the ‘yes and’ rule, you accept the balloon and expand upon it. So it may lead to a scene at the fair or a birthday party. However, if you say ‘No I hate balloons’, then you have blocked the offer and halted the scene. It may be mild panic and ‘no’ was the first thing that came into your head. It may be that you had your own idea of how things should turn out. Either way, it’s easy to see that if everyone blocked offers then no scenes can ever develop. It’s the same with solutions to problems in everyday life.

There are parallels between this basic improv principle and brainstorming for problem solving. It’s a standard practice that there should be no premature censoring of ideas.The first stage is to collect ideas however preposterous they may seem. The second stage is to sift through them. Sometimes an idea that at first seemed unfeasible, or downright silly, may inspire another idea that may lead to a solution. If we dismiss ideas prematurely we may unwittingly be dismissing solutions that spring from these ideas.

The idea of playing a ‘yes and’ game has great applications in real-life especially in times of ‘stuckness’. The crucial question to ask yourself is whether you are being a ‘yes butter’ or a ‘yes ander’? The ‘yes and’ approach will undoubtedly create options you may not have thought of,  especially in times of stress. When stressed we tend to see things in black and white and our responses become focused on survive rather than thrive. It’s amazing how our perceptions change when we relax. In fact it’s  the optimal state for learning and is why I begin my confidence building workshops with relaxation exercises, a few improv games and occasionally balloons! It gets everyone in a receptive ‘solution-focused’ mindset.

So the upshot is that it’s difficult to find solutions for life’s problems from a position of stress where you vision of the possible paths and outcomes may be limited. Solutions will emerge if you relax, adopt a ‘yes and’ approach and don’t prematurely censor possible solutions.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood

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Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science?

Is Stand-Up Comedy a Science? No, that’s not a joke. Watching confident, established comedians ‘trying out new material’ reveals the use of scientific methods. This approach is also taught on stand-up comedy courses. In this post I’ll outline some key issues in science, how comedians adopt these principles to hone their craft and how this approach can be applied to all areas of personal and professional development.

Science is all about probabilities not absolutes

One of the biggest misconceptions about science is that it deals in absolutes. It doesn’t. Scientific method is all about probability. Scientists don’t prove anything but simply demonstrate, statistically, that there’s a slim possibility that their results occurred due to chance. Scientists design experiments to control for noise, those extraneous variables that may confound results. The aim is to demonstrate a strong probability that there is a cause and effect between variables (by eliminating chance). For the stand-up comedian, the aim is to demonstrate that a joke causes laughter.

Objectivity versus subjectivity in science and comedy

It’s often stated that science is all about objectivity. In my own research work (as a social psychologist) I challenge this notion. I maintain that science is about bounded subjectivity. If you claim to be objective you are still taking a stance. This is not objectivity. The only true form of objectivity is indifference. Scientists as human beings will have a vested interested in the outcome of their research. There is a whole body of research in psychology to demonstrate experimenter effects. Sometimes scientists are blinded by their own unconscious biases and see the results they want to see. The idea of ‘bounded subjectivity’ is a useful concept for stand-up comics. It’s ludicrous to suggest that comedians don’t care about the results of their efforts. However, it’s helpful to control for unconscious bias. This is achieved by trying jokes out in front of different audiences, at different times and in different places.

The science of stand-up comedy

Watching professional (and gifted amateur) stand-up comedians emphasizes the value of taking a detached, scientific approach. A stand-up comedian begins by writing some material (jokes) and then tests them out in front of an audience. It begins with what makes the comedian laugh (subjectivity) and then the hypothesis that ‘this stuff will make other people laugh’. Testing the material yields results: people laugh or they don’t. People may laugh in unexpected places. This feedback is useful in refining comedy hypotheses. Of course it’s important to replicate the experiment and test the material out on a number of samples and in different contexts (bounded subjectivity). In research terms this is similar to controlling for confounding variables. With this approach, it’s the smallest of changes that can make a joke work on a more consistent basis. I have seen comedians who repeated try out a joke (that they particularly like) without a change and without a laugh, over and over again. If they took the time to use the feedback they might see where to make the adjustment.

The art of not taking it personally

I’ve heard my scientist colleagues complain that they got bad results, which emphasizes the lack of objectivity. Science is often built on a determination to get the ‘right’ results. ‘Mistakes’ in science can be expensive. I’ve also seen comedian friends allow a ‘bad gig’ to send them into a ‘depression’ for days. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for comedians is The Eleven O’Clock Rule by British stand-up comedian, Sarah Millican. Put simply, after a gig, you have up until eleven o’clock the next day, irrespective of whether it’s a ‘disaster’ or a ‘triumph’. You can either whine or gloat until then. After that, you move on.

One comedian who also adopts a scientific approach is Tom Stade. I was lucky enough to attend a new material night and Mr Stade turned up as a special guest to try out new material. He takes to the stage and switches on a digital recorder, places it on a stool and then he’s off. After ‘bringing the house down’, he turns, switches off the recorder and off he goes. I saw him perform the same material in a more polished form a few months later and get even more laughs. Many comedians would have been overjoyed with the first attempt. I suspect there were a few recordings between the first and subsequent version. Tom Stade is economical with words. He doesn’t waste them. Pauses and gestures and tone all wring laughter from the material. Another more extreme example of a scientific approach is Emo Philips where not a single word is wasted. His idiot-savant like manner disguises the absolute precision.

Some comedian friends adopt  a scientific approach and record everything, as you are advised to do on comedy courses. Others ignore the advice and keep delivering the same punch lines in the same way and come off stage bemused and frustrated when they don’t get the laughs they think it deserves. One comedy friend set himself the goal of coming up with a great five minutes of material and continually honed this material. His persistence paid off as he persistently wins gong shows up and down the country. I’ve seen others, randomly throwing together sets and complaining when it doesn’t ‘go down a storm.

The scientific approach just doesn’t have to apply to the material but also about other aspects of the performance, such as what needs to happen for me to have fun at the gig, relax and create rapport with the audience? The science shouldn’t take the heart out of it, just help to encourage continuous development and help to create a bit of distance, a buffer zone between the disciple and the discipline, the art and the artist.

Extending the scientific approach to personal and professional development

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodI went on stand-up comedy course, in part, as research on my book Unlock your Confidence. The same approach works for all goals in any area of personal and professional development. Use personal experiments to ‘try things on for size’ with the threat of failure. It’s all about the feedback. There’s no beating yourself up when things go wrong or taking things to personally. Just as with the stand-up comic, the lack of a laugh (‘the right result’) shouldn’t reduce you to tears. Neither should it be taken as an indication of self-esteem. It’s just a sign that you need to make adjustments and try again. Building confidence in anything takes two types of courage: the courage to take the first step and the courage to persist (in line with feedback). Confidence is a process.

Be scientific, be detached, be persistent, collect data, use the data, refine your approach, have fun!

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Life, Fun, Gratitude and Regret… a call to action

Sometimes life gets us down. We get stuck in a routine, become overwhelmed by circumstances or paralyzed  by fear. We claim not to know what we want except we know that we don’t want more of ‘this’. Knowing that you do not want more of the same is a start. Describing what we want to move away from is the first step in describing what we want to move towards. It also helps to take stock of what we already have. It’s often described in self-help speak as acquiring the attitude of gratitude. Simply be focusing on what we are thankful for (however small), helps to retune our perceptions to potential positive opportunities. It’s become a key strategy in my confidence building approach (See Unlock Your Confidence).

I saw ‘International Fun Smuggler’ Mrs Barbara Nice’s show at Edinburgh Fringe. Mrs Nice takes great delight in celebrating the small things in life (and it’s difficult to come away from her shows feeling anything but uplifted). In the show she also touched on the regrets in life. These provide clues to what we might do to escape ‘more of the same’. Bronnie Ware, palliative nurse recorded the top five regrets of dying patients and at first glance seemed all rather un-sensational. However they provide a recipe for living without regret. Here are our biggest regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

Consider how you allow the expectation of others to limit your choices and perpetuate more of the same. Consider what small thing you could do today that brings you a tiny bit closer to your idea of your true self. It could be starting a new hobby or attending an evening class. Start with a small thing to build your confidence and create momentum. Do it today.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Consider how you can create a little balance in your life. What do you do to relax? What small things can you let go to make time for yourself? When I run confidence building workshops I ask about the moments when people have more confidence invariably they report times when they are relaxing and having fun. In Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In…Swim Out to Meet It, I wrote that a melody consists not just of the notes, but also of the rests in between the notes. Taking time out can improve efficiency at work and can have a knock on effect in other areas of your life. What will you do today to create some moments of fun or relaxation?

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Often bottled up feelings can lead to resentment and bitterness and sometimes people turn those feelings in on themselves. Many people spend years in work meetings saying nothing until one day they speak up. At that time it didn’t matter if anyone else agreed, it was just enough for them to ‘say my piece’. Like anything else, if you have little practice at expressing your feelings (saying your piece) then start small, with something almost inconsequential, as long as it’s a first step. Expressing our feelings will engage others in feedback. Sometimes they will agree and sometimes they won’t. Either way the act of speaking up and dealing with the feedback is a way of building self-esteem. Of course, it can be positive expressions of feelings such as gratitude to another person.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Sometimes we take friendships for granted and let other aspects of our lives get in the way. The same applies to family members. We just assume that they will always be there. They become part of our ‘psychological furniture’ rather than real people. There have never been so many ways to communicate as there are today. A group text message to all of your contacts is not staying in touch. It’s going through the motions. When looking back over our lives we realize that all the things in life that, at the time, mattered more than people, don’t. Forget Facebook (for a while) and focus on facial expressions and vocal inflections with real people, off line. So who can you reconnect with, voice to voice, face to face?

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Getting the ‘gratitude attitude’ helps to create a foundation for happiness as does making time to have fun. It’s interesting that the regret here is ‘let myself’. This implies that the opportunities were there but not seized. A key way of finding more happiness to set goals that stretch in areas of life that interest us. In his classic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) offers a simple message. To be happier we just need to spend more time ‘in flow’. These are the moments when we become so totally engrossed in what we are doing that we lose all sense of time. We set goals to improve our personal best and develop skills, engaging blissfully in the present moment. So what would that be for you? What start can you make today?

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodNothing here requires massive life changes. All that it takes is small affirmative steps. In my coaching practice, the emphasis is on creating small, shifts in perception and action. It has always amazed that clients do far more between coaching sessions that we agreed or that either of us expected. It’s not bungee jumping or fire walking that transform lives, but small steps of persistent action in the desired direction.

What will you do today, to build happiness and regret-proof your life?

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A Place on The Great Bull – My Crowning Achievement?

Pic: Dr Gary Wood on Big Brother's Little BrotherWhen stand-up comedian, James Cook, sent me a Facebook message that read ‘I think we may have something in common’. I was intrigued. I’d attended James’s Stand-Up comedy course, partly as a bit of research for some courses I was writing about confidence and partly to see if I could stand up and make people laugh. Anyway I digress. I’d kind of assumed that we already had quite a lot in common – apparently not –  so what new revelation might ‘a click of the mouse’ hold?

The Great Bull Map of Birmingham 'Celebrity'

The Great Bull – The Crowning Achievement of Dr Gary Wood

It was a link to the ‘Birmingham it’s not sh*t’ website. This looks promising, I thought. (Not!)

The post entitled The Great Bull mirrors The Great Bear, where celebrities’ names instead of stations are on the London Underground map. This new version does the same for Birmingham. I quickly found James Cook on the map – he was the stop before Stewart Lee. A well deserved accolade. However, I could not see how this meant that we had something (more) in common. Much to my surprise, I did find my name over at ‘the rough end’ on the Reality TV line. I’m so pleased that those appearances on Big Brother’s Little Brother and Trisha  (as a life coach) paid off over my long, hard years of study. However, curiously, I’m flattered. I suppose it’s better than being on there for being a serial killer.

Whereas James Cook is over on the Tony Hancock end (with Lenny Henry), I’m on the Robert Kilroy-Silk end along with Enoch Powell and Bill Oddie. Although over on my side we have William Shakespeare and Bob Carolgees. Being on the Reality TV route I suppose I must clutch at straws.

This bit of nonsense and whimsy has made me think of the importance of ‘just doing something’. Everyone who knows me knows that I take any opportunity to encourage people to continue learning. I also constantly seek out new learning opportunities and new challenges, particular when they scare me. I often make the point:

We live and we learn!

Life will teach you lessons whether you like it or not.

So, why not set your own agenda?

I like to take control of some of my own agenda for my learning. Setting learning goals that stretch us contributes to happiness and builds confidence and esteem. I often say that it doesn’t matter what you learn as long as you actively continue to do so. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a stand-up comedy course but I can heartily recommend it. You might want to learn a different language, learn to play a musical instrument, learn to bake or tap dance or polish up on computer skills or wood whittling. It doesn’t matter that none of these may not gain you a ‘prestigious’ place on the map of your city. It will, however, transform your own internal landscape. Never underestimate the power and knock on effect of learning something new. Don’t let others put you off. Just do something for you. Learning something new. Yes that’s my feedle attempt to get off Reality TV and on to William Shakespeare line. Yes I have a long way to go, but trying will be fun.

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Give Up the Routine and Predictable for Lent – Give Up On Giving Up

Lent, in the Christian calendar is marked by prayer, penance, repentance, charity andself-denial, for forty days leading to up Easter. It is usually summed up in the phrase ‘giving up something for Lent’,  and is often seen as a test of will-power. However, there is more than one way to ‘give up’ and make sacrifices. So if we consider Lent from a secular, personal development angle, you don’t have to be religious to observe lent.

One aspect of prayer is about giving thanks and practising gratitude. So over, the next 40 days, take a moment each day to take stock and be thankful what the things, situations, opportunities and people in your life. To help, here’s a link to my Gratitude and Anticipation Experiment. Another aspect of prayer is giving time to reflect quietly, so you could also include 40 days of meditation, for a couple of minutes, three times a day. Try my Two-Minute Stress Buster and give up on stress.

Penance and repentance are about facing up to mistakes and seeking forgiveness. So use the next 40 days to build bridges with people and put things right. Also, spend the next 40 days forgiving people whom you feel have wronged you. Sometimes we hold on to past hurts and don’t allow ourselves to move on. Also, spend the next 40 days giving up on collecting new hurts. Start by forgiving yourself. Give up on beating yourself up about past mistakes. Give up on holding on to the past. Give up on that inner-self talk that puts you down.

Charity involves giving something to others. It’s easy to give money (when you have it to spare), but more difficult to actually give time. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. So, over the next 40 days you could do a random of act of kindness each day.

Self-denial is what is most associated with Lent, but need not be about giving up our favourite treats. Instead, think about giving up routine by trying something new. We often get stuck in a rut, so use the next 40 days to deny ourselves that ‘luxury’. Opt for novelty over familiarity. Increase variety of the foods. Get more exercise. Read a book or start learning a new language. Deny the part of the self that likes to get stuck in a routine. Give up on saying ‘that’s just the way I am‘.

Think of any aspect of your life or self that you’d like to develop such as confidence, social skills or self-esteem. Give up on the feelings that are holding you back and take the first steps to try the very things you’d like to do. Give up on excuses.

At the start of the 40 day experiment, rate your happiness on a scale of zero to ten. Rate your life satisfaction and also optimism of the same zero to ten scale. At then end of the 40 days, rate your happiness, life satisfaction and optimism again. What’s changed. Is there any thing that you’d tried during the 40 day experiment that you’d like to continue doing?

Give up on giving up. . . but not just for Lent.

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What Rhymes with Orange, Silver, Purple, and Month?

pic: Orange, Silver, Purple, Month RhymesIt’s often been said that there are no words in the English language that rhyme with orange, silver, purple or month. So, here’s a hastily crafted poem, that has absolutely nothing to do with psychology or coaching, it’s just a bit of fun:

Orange, Silver, Purple and Month
I clambered up the Blorenge
Dressed in brightest orange
Against the barren silver
I spied a graceful chilver
I lost my horse’s curple,
Amonsgt the heather, purple.
But to find a rhyme for month, I must admit is uneath.

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About Gary Wood
When not engaged in displacement activities such as finding rhymes for orange, silver, purple and month Gary Studio: Dr Gary Woodspecializes in applying social psychology to personal development and life coaching.He is the author of Unlock Your Confidence: Find the Keys to Lasting Change Through The Confidence-Karma Method (Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA ) Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his coaching and training practice and research consultancy.