I Am A Yes And Person: How Improv Changed My Relationships

In the fall of 1997, I was a lonely girl on the campus of one of the biggest party schools in the nation. My first few weeks at the University of Wisconsin at Madison were miserable. One day, while walking up State Street, I saw a flyer for a local improvisational comedy troupe that was offering classes.

Those improv classes basically changed my life. I looked forward to them more than any of my college courses. I had finally found my people. And my mentor. The workshop teacher and the artistic director of the improv troupe saw something in me. And he invited me to join the company.

Performing improv in college was the most fun I’ve ever had. I made all of my close friends, and most of my boyfriends, through it. But it was more than just a social network. It became a way of life, a way to face the world and make sense of it. Improv taught me how to be a better writer, a better performer, a better communicator, a better listener, and a better version of myself.

If you don’t have the time to devote decades of your life to improvisational comedy like I have, let me briefly explain one of the tenets of improv and how it applies to relationships. Improv is all about saying Yes and…

In order to get up on stage and create a scene from nothing with another person, you have to remain in a positive, receptive mindset and say yes.

But you can’t just sit there saying yes to whatever your scene partner offers you—that would be boring and your partner would be doing all of the work! You have to build the scene by offering your own idea that builds upon your partner’s idea by saying (or thinking) Yes and.

Now that you’ve got the basic idea, I’ll apply it to society at large. This may seem simplistic, but there are four basic types of people in the world:

  • people who say no
  • people who say yes
  • people who say yes but
  • people who say yes and

No People

These folks are to be avoided as much as possible. They'll stomp on your ideas without offering any of their own. They are black holes that suck positive energy. We’ve all met these kinds of people. Perhaps on our bad days, we’ve even been these types of people. No people won’t be there for you. They don’t make good friends ... or lovers.

Yes People

Yes people are better than no people, but the truth is, they’re kind of boring. By never offering anything up about themselves, and only saying yes to whatever you offer up about yourself, a true connection cannot be created. You may think of a Yes person as sweet or kind or polite, but you can never really scratch the surface with them because true intimacy cannot be achieved.

Perhaps there’s a Yes person in the cubicle across from you right now.

Yes But People

This is a tricky bunch! They seem like they’re bringing an original idea to the table, but what they’re really doing is undercutting yours by saying why it won’t work. They’re “No People” in disguise! Nothing is possible for “Yes But” people. You may think they’re into an idea you’re offering, or a story you’re telling, but really they’re just nodding along until the moment they can tell you why your idea would never work. I’ve had more than a few bosses, and college professors, who were Yes Buts.

Yes And People

Think about your closest friends. What do you like about them? That they understand you, get you, and connect with you? I know something about your friends: they’re “Yes And People.” That’s why you connect with them. That’s why you enjoy hanging out together.

They take your idea and run with it, but not so much that they steamroll and don’t listen to you. Your friendship is an even exchange of ideas and experiences that doesn’t seem like work. My best relationships are with Yes Ands. In the words of Anne of Green Gables, they are kindred spirits.

These archetypes can apply to all kinds of people in your life. Look at your day-to-day life and think about the Nos, the Yesses, the Yes Buts and the Yes Ands around you.

You can apply these techniques to total strangers, too. When I go to a party, I try to be a Yes And person, it’s a great way to make conversation with acquaintances I might not know so well. And who knows? You may even find a Yes And person in return!

When I first began to study improv, I’ll admit it… I was a Yes person. And sometimes even a Yes But. With my closest friends, I was a Yes And, though it was difficult for me to open up to complete strangers, and to be myself onstage. My default was politeness and I did it very well.

Over time, I began to get more comfortable bringing out my inner self (and my crazy ideas) and embracing the complicated and scary moment when you offer something of yourself and wait for your partner to pick it up. Sometimes they just won’t get it, and the idea will get dropped, leaving you feeling vulnerable or silly. But other times your partner is completely with you and you can enjoy creating and building a connection together. And that feels like magic.

I’ve learned that it’s better to put something out there, than to never offer up anything at all. I continue to use these tools in actual improv to this day. Just last week, I taught improvisational comedy to my daughter’s preschool class. I’m hoping to help create a few more Yes And people.

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