As a professional, one of the things we hear on a regular basis is the importance of saying no: to people, projects and things that do not move us closer to our goals. There are countless articles about how it’s much more beneficial to come from a place of “no”. As a certified people-pleaser, this never sat well with me for a number of reasons. After being on the receiving end of the word “no” for many years in my career, however, I realized that it wasn’t just the desire to please others that made me dislike the word “no”, but I’ve seen where it eventually led to a breakdown in cooperation and consideration for other team members.
After being frustrated time and time again as to why projects weren’t moving forward the way I’d hoped, I went back to my professional roots. Not to business school notes or organizational communication textbooks, but to what I learned when I took acting classes. Specifically, improv. My educational background is in theatre, and I’ve been able to tap into this training many times in the business world. One of the things I was always taught was that it’s more important to not only come from a place of “yes”, rather than “no”, but to come from a place of “yes, and”. This is one of the fundamental rules of improvisation, and it’s been incredibly beneficial to me in my job: in meetings, in presentations, and in brainstorming sessions.
Here’s why coming from a place of “yes, and” might actually be better for you and your teams in the long run:
1. Rules and guidelines won’t limit you; they’ll inspire you.
As a living, I manage PR and social media at an agency, and we have a lot of rules, governances and branding guidelines that we must follow on behalf of our clients. I’ve seen first-hand how these rules make it much easier for people to say “no”. And then creativity suffers. When setting an improvised scene, there are often rules or limitations put into place, but the actors embrace them with enthusiasm and go about playing within those boundaries. They say “yes, and”. They know that there’s unlimited creative potential within those boundaries, and it makes for much more impactful and interesting scenes. By incorporating this attitude in our careers, we see opportunities where others may see limitations.
2. People are more willing to contribute ideas and be collaborative when you need them to be.
As I mentioned, having rules and guidelines can make it easier for people to say “no” when ideas are brought to the table. “No. Here’s why that won’t work” can often be a recurring theme and can seep into the company culture. And too often, I’ve seen where this kind of attitude can make collaboration and brainstorming nearly impossible. People are too intimidated or too defeated to contribute because they’re afraid of their ideas being rejected. By embracing an attitude of “yes, and”, ideas are more likely to find their way to the table when you need them most. Improvisation relies heavily on the participation of other actors and audience members. There is no room for pure rejection because that would zap the fun right out of the performance. If you need ideas, “yes, and” is a much more constructive way to go.
3. It empowers you to own the narrative, rather than simply reacting to it.
When a manager or boss comes to you with a new project, and you’re completely slammed, there are a few ways you can react to it. Saying “no” – whether you have a right to or not – often puts women in a position of being labeled as someone who is not a team player. This is absolutely unfair and worthy of another blog post on another day. Saying “yes”, however – though you simply do not have the capacity – makes you a doormat. Instead, try this: say “yes, and here’s what I need to make that happen”. This allows you to own your time and resources and forces your manager to prioritize those tasks so that you’re not burdened. The best, most creative improvised scenes come about when people embrace, rather than deny, the action of the story.
Clearly, there are times when a simple “yes” or “no” makes sense, and it’s up to you as an individual to identify what those are. If you’re struggling, however, to motivate your team or get others on board with your ideas, embracing a “yes, and” approach might mean the difference between accomplishing goals as a team versus alienating your coworkers altogether. Study an actor or a comedian, and you’ll learn first-hand how powerful the affirmative can be.