Improve Your Conversations with Improv!

October 8, 2021

Improvisation: Vine and Wall, by Lloyd Bishop

Are you looking for ways to enhance the quality of your communication with others?

Try validating, affirming, and building on what your conversation partners say.

In improvisational acting (“improv,” for short), this is a core principle, and it starts with two key words: “Yes, and.”  “Yes” (or an equivalent expression) affirms the validity of what the other person just said; “and …” invites you to connect and build on that.  

This “Yes” is an act of acknowledgement, not necessarily agreement.  You can accept the validity of someone’s comment even if you disagree with it.  If you want more satisfying conversations, hold your disagreement or differing viewpoint for a later moment, instead of spilling it immediately.  A conversation is a delicate thing, worth nurturing and protecting. 

Here’s an example of “Yes, and” in action.  Let’s say you and I just visited an art gallery:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

You:  “Wow!  I enjoyed seeing that artwork!”

Me:  “Yeah, there were some dynamic pieces, and I’d like to come back.”

You:  “Me too; I want to take another look at those clown paintings.”

Me:  “I hear you — they were colorful, and one of them was pretty funny!”  

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Smooth!  We used “Yes, and” consistently, with “Yes”-equivalents “Yeah,” “Me too,” “I hear you,” and one unspoken “and.”  

This conversation promises to grow into something fulfilling for both of us.  We’re listening attentively to each other, choosing to respond affirmatively, coordinating our remarks, and building a coherent exchange.  

Verbal collaboration takes effort, as our minds are often juggling multiple thoughts, mixed feelings, and conflicting impulses.  We may want to contradict or criticize what our partners say, not realizing that such negations can erode the enthusiasm and goodwill that constructive communication depends on.

For example, consider how often we do this:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

You:  “Wow!  I enjoyed seeing that artwork!”

Me:  “Did you really?  Actually, most of it seemed rather dull to me.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Oops — sorry!  I flattened your “enjoyed” with my knee-jerk “rather dull” reaction.  I may have even punctured your confidence and squashed what could have been a meaningful chat.  The turning point was “Actually,” a modest and innocent-sounding transition that tempted me to pontificate instead of listen, affirm, and collaborate.

In improv acting, this trouble is serious: If you said enjoyed, and I said dull, then where can our scenario go?  The imagined reality we could have created for an audience (or just ourselves) has collapsed; we can try to rescue or restart it, or just quit.  Such negations in real life can also be serious, but participants may “grin and bear” them if they’re stuck in the situation or committed to the relationship.

Another troublemaker is “but” — often dressed as “Yes” in the phrase “Yes, but …”:

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

You:  “Those clown paintings were so good!”

Me:  “Yes, but the landscapes were so much better.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Ouch!  My “but” revealed my “Yes” as a fake.  Maybe I didn’t consciously mean to crush your clowns, but subconsciously I did!  Watch out for this sneaky spoiler.  It’s easy to deceive yourself that this “Yes” is an affirmation; it is not. 

The techniques and mindset of improv are easy to learn and apply.  Sprinkle some “Yes, and” into your next conversation: you may notice your partner responds happily and energetically, and your interaction takes surprising, meaningful turns!

* * * * * * *

A version of this article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2020.

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