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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Briefly Describe the Problem Then Focus Intensely on Solutions

Feeling ‘Listened to’

Talking about problems allows us to hear the problem outside of our own inner dialogue. Simply by finding the precise words to explain our problems to another person can cause a shift in perceptions. Some people seek coaching based on a perception that it is a lot like counselling. Of course, there are cross-overs in terms of some of the basic assumptions of Carl Rogers’s Person-Centred Therapy. Rogers talks about creating the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions for change’ and recognizes clients as the experts in their own lives. The therapeutic relationship is also paramount. It’s unusual to be another human being and feel totally ‘listened to’. It rarely happens in everyday life.

General description of the past and a detailed picture of the future

Now some clients, encouraged by the therapeutic relationship, feel the encouraged to explain in the finest details the issues that brought them to seek counselling. The idea is that greater understanding helps to facilitate change. In coaching it’s not necessary to know how you got here in the minutest of detail. As part of my coaching training I underwent the coaching process as a client. I quickly realized that I favoured the convoluted explanation to ensure that the coach understood every minute detail of the problem, how it had arisen and so on and on and on. The coach asked me ‘Where is this taking us?’ The question stopped me in my tracks. Early in my coaching practice I had experienced clients who felt the need to give me the fullest possible picture. This simple principle of ‘where is this taking us’ helped me to shape the sessions to better focuses them on the future. My own version of the intervention is ‘I’m getting a very clear picture of what you want to move away from. I’m less clear about what you’d like to move towards. Perhaps you could fill in a few of those details’. There is a fine line between hearing the client and getting bogged down in so much detail that all avenues of possible solutions are closed off.

If there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching

Coaching is ultimately about goals. There’s a mantra often quoted that ‘if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching’. It’s been a long recognized research finding that all forms of therapy have pretty much the same outcomes. It’s called the equivalence paradox. However I would argue that some therapeutic models lend themselves as better bases for coaching than do others. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a problem-focused type therapy that emphases changes in the ways we perceive the world and the way we act in it. Gestalt therapy is focused on the ‘here-and-now’ which has parallels with coaching. However with psychodynamic approach with its emphasis on unconscious processes the common factors are not so clear.  A former psychodynamic practitioner colleague proposed a model of coaching called ‘Cognitive-Analytic Coaching’ as an alternative to CBT. Apart from being a somewhat unfortunate acronym, the strong emphasis on analysis seems at odds with basic principles of coaching. There might be lots of thinking and analysing but the action element appears underplayed. It’s almost an afterthought.

Meaningful and practical steps to change

TV therapy-based programmes invariably pay homage to cod-psychoanalysis and often parents or teachers get the blame for everything. However it’s not necessarily the case that this insight will inspire any move forward in life. It might help to reinforce helplessness and become the justification for things to stay as they are. As well as digging over the past such programmes are also heavy on the symbolism. It just so happens that symbolic gestures look good on camera. However it’s unlikely that the programme producer asks the ‘client’ if standing at the seashore, letting balloons go at sunset chanting to the great baloon god is personally meaningful. Such TV-friendly dispays create the illusion of doing something without actually doing anything at all. Unfortunately, some ‘inspirational’ models of coaching follow a more ‘poetic’ approach to personal development. However, evidence-based coaching has a stronger emphasis on meaningful empowerment and practicalities. In my practice, any kind of exercise is based on client insights and always meaningful to them. If a coach tries to cajoles you in to trying ‘hocus pocus nonsense’ against your better judgement, then find another coach. Bullshit never takes precedence over meaningfulness.

Following the 80:20 principle

Coaching is often about making small significant insights rather than waiting for ultimate mysteries in life to be revealed. In my practice I operate the 80:20 principle to structure coaching sessions. This is in line with the CBT approach and the Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) approach. So, you would describe the problem or issue for 20% of the session and in the remaining 80% we would explore solutions. It follows the principle that the more we talk about the problem, the bigger it gets. Giving more time to solutions (even tiny little ones) can create a shift and begin building confidence and motivation right away. Solution-Focused Brief Coaching is about creating a different mindset. The coaching relationship begins with the coaching helping you to explore things from different perspectives. As the coaching process continues, you the client, get to learn the solution-focused perspective so that it becomes an automatic alternative to the problem-oriented mindset. Part of this mindset is to consider the smallest shifts and smallest actions to tackle the issue rather then trying to tackle the whole problem head on. Often a seemingly insignificant change leads to a significant change in perception.

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Other coaching and confidence blog posts from Gary Wood