“Yes–And,” Setting the Tone for Exploratory Discussions

The discussions in an Interactivity Foundation project are intended to foster collaborative discoveries. We want people to be able to work together to think anew about what could be the case. We’d like to enable the kind of innovation that can happen when people help each other to uncover alternative perspectives and to map out alternative possibilities for our society. For this to happen, it’s essential to set the right tone for the discussions. I’d like to offer some guidance about the kind of attitude that should permeate our work together in these project discussions–an attitude of saying “yes–and,” an attitude of creative agreement that works to foster discovery and innovation.

The attitude of “yes–and” is one way to embody generosity of spirit, a core aspect of our approach to discussions. Let me share a snippet from Stephen Colbert, who offered this as general advice to the 2006 graduates of Knox College, since it is particularly good advice when it comes to thinking about how you should approach our discussions:

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

(Colbert’s 2006 Knox Commencement Speech )

This attitude lies at the heart of our approach to exploratory and collaborative discussions.  It’ll shape what we do together in our project discussions.  When we engage in this kind of generative discussion, we don’t really have a script.  Sure, there is a general structure and an overall arc of development, but we don’t know exactly how things are going to develop or what insights will emerge along the way.  We’ll likely end up at places that are a surprise to us.  Places we’d never likely have found on our own.  We won’t know in advance whether some lines of discussion may lead us astray or whether, by such meandering, we’ll actually come upon important discoveries, discoveries we might never have found without such a detour. Of course there will also be time for critical reflection and evaluation, but generating new possibilities first takes an openness to what may be novel or unexpected. Adopting an attitude of saying “yes-and” will do much to boost the creative potential of our discussions.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might want to take a look at Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, where he gives a quick illustration of the importance of the attitude of “yes-and.”  It is from a part of the book on “the Structure of Spontaneity” (pp. 111-117) that is particularly apt for what we’re doing (actually, the whole book sheds a lot of light on the kind of social cognition and thinking that is vital to productive discussions).  The section on the Structure of Spontaneity is quite applicable to what we’ll be doing together.  It might help you in thinking about your approach to our discussions.

–Jeff Prudhomme

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