Most of us working on social change are experts at criticism. The problem is when it becomes an unconscious habit in individuals and across entire teams. “Yes! And…” is a classic, fun improv theatre exercise that interrupts this “culture of critique” and helps groups become more adept at embracing new, creative ideas.
“I can’t believe how hard this is!” exclaimed Vince. “It took all my self-control to not to say “yes, BUT!” The group of civil rights activists, many of them trained attorneys, laughed knowingly. Several had just the same experience. We were sitting in a sunny boardroom in Los Angeles yesterday, debriefing a short exercise we’d just run called “Yes, And…”. If you’re familiar with improvisational theatre or comedy, you’ll know that it’s a powerful training tool, while being highly entertaining in its own right. “Yes! And…” is also one of the most effective, simple exercises I know to help leaders and groups disrupt long-held habits of negative collective thinking in order to generate a more creative, innovative flow of ideas.
The Culture of Critique
Most of us working on social change are experts at criticism. This is particularly true for those of us with academic training, or whose work is focused on advocacy or legal strategies. Through our work as change agents, we learn to finely hone our abilities to rebutt, refuke, counter, critique, denounce and generally point out the shortcomings of other peoples’ ideas. We become so skilled, in fact, that many of our critical tendencies become habits – unconscious, almost knee-jerk reactions to the world around us. And those habits get expressed internally, interpersonally, within organizations and across entire movements. Together, they form what I call a “culture of critique”.
Is criticism necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. The critical, free-thinking minds and imaginations of human beings are among our greatest gifts. Those gifts make it possible to talk about risks, to fight oppression, to influence human systems and behaviours so that we are more just, equitable, collectively intelligent and compassionate.
Criticism has its place. The problem is when it becomes an unconscious habit. It becomes even more of a problem when that habit starts getting routinely expressed across entire cultures.
When critique gets in the way of social change
In fact, the more we aspire to working collaboratively across difference as leaders and movements, the more the “culture of critique” becomes a liability. And it can impede collaborative leadership in several ways:
- Debate vs. dialogue: Instead of dialogue, we automatically veer toward debate. In conversation, we stop listening, often too soon. The energy becomes more focused on ‘who’s right’ than ‘how can we best move forward’.
- Missing the full picture”: As Steven Covey says in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the best leaders “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. If we’re immersed in a “culture of critique”, our unconscious habit will be to counter before hearing, or understanding, the full story of another person’s perspective, missing out on important pieces of the whole truth. That means we also miss out on the full spectrum of potential opportunities to move past sticking points into new solutions.
- Weaker relationships: In the contracted mental and emotional state of “critique”, our focus stayed narrowly confined to our own perspectives, and fails to account for the truths of others. We become less compassionate, less empathetic. The result? Weaker, less trusting partnerships with others.
- Shutting down good ideas: When others experience critique, they more likely to shut down before their own ideas can fully blossom. Worse, people can become habituated to ‘playing it safe’. They become more likely to avoid sharing risky, innovative ideas that might get shot down as being ‘inappropriate’, ‘stupid’, or befall the idea-purgatory of ‘we already tried that.’
What’s more, all of these effects are compounded when those modeling a habit of criticism hold more institutional, positional, cultural or personal power.
Practicing the “Yes! And…” exercise
As facilitators and leaders, we know that both a desire to do things differently, and a commitment to practice, can help replace less helpful habits with new ones. One of the simplest, easiest exercises I know of as a facilitator is “Yes, And…”. It’s also a terrific energizer, as the results are often hilarious. At its heart, “Yes, And” is about fully accepting whatever someone else shares with you – and then building upon it. Here’s one approach to leading it:
- Form pairs. One person is the A, the other the B
- A starts by stating something about themselves or the other person… it can be anything at all. If it’s provocative, all the better.
- B responds with “Yes! And….”, adding to the statement
- A responds with “Yes! And…” and continues building on what B just said
- Run the exercise for 3-5 minutes, depending on the energy in the room
- Debrief as a large group
Watch out for any urge to counter your partner’s statement, either overtly or through sarcasm. Just keep building. Really, genuinely work with what you’re given!
Here’s an example my colleague Michael practiced with me this week. He was wicked, and we ended up laughing so hard we could barely breath. Here’s how it started:
Michael: So… I hear you’ve become a corporate weapons manufacturer! [I gasp inwardly]
Me: [gulping] Yes, and…. I’m really excited about the opportunity to become an internal agent for positive change in the industry!!
Michael: Yes, and… since I know it’s going to be challenging, I have some relaxation techniques I can recommend!
Me: Yes, and… I’m definitely looking forward to us using them together, since I know you’ve just been hired into the same weapons research division as me!”
Michael: [eyes widening] Yes! And….
And so on. Of course, it can be a lot more serious and “real” than that. The point is to practice disrupting the habit of critical thinking, and building up the habit of embracing and adding to others’ ideas, no matter how weird those ideas may feel.
Want to see a real-time example? Check out this improv theatre training video by Avish Parashar and Fred Gleek.
Applying “Yes! And…” over time
There are two keys to this being really effective in the long-run.
Debrief well: at least for the first time working with a group, make sure there’s enough time to really debrief what it’s like. Where was it hard? In what ways? Did it get easier? How did it feel? What did people notice?
Practice it often. “Yes! And..” is a short, useful energizer in it’s own right, especially during meetings after lunch or when group energy is low. It’s also extremely useful as a “drill” to use before, say, a strategy session, or any kind of collective brainstorm involving at least two people.