An Improvisers Toolkit for GRC – Lesson # 4: Yes – And

Yes And 2RNF.Headshot.2014.adjustBy Ronnie Feldman

To start today’s blog post, I’d like to get a suggestion from the audience.  Just yell out the first thing that comes to mind.

“Risk Mitigation!” “Culture!”  “Leadership!”

Okay, great!  We will now talk about Improvisation and Risk Mitigation, Culture & Leadership.

Hi, I’m Ronnie Feldman, President of Learnings & Entertainments, a creative services and content provider that focuses on improving corporate communication through the use of improvisation and purposeful humor.  I had pleasure of leading an improv workshop at this past years SCCE Compliance & Ethics Institute, where we had 350 GRC professionals participate in some improv exercises focusing on communication, collaboration and leadership.  We had lots of laughs – because improv is fun – but we also started making connections between the wonderful world of theater and improvisation and the compliance community.   There are actually quite a few skills and philosophies that professional improvisers use to be successful on stage that can help the GRC professional (and leaders in general) communicate more effectively to build a culture of collaboration, transparency and trust.  The fine folks at SCCE asked if I would expound upon these concepts in blog form, which we will be doing here over the next several months.  We hope you enjoy.

Improvisation – An Introduction

What is Improv? It is the art of making something out of nothing. It is thinking on your feet, creating on the spot, off the top of your head.  It is not, however, the art of being funny.  On stage, funny is often the byproduct of good improv, because of the unexpected connections and spontaneity.  Funny people who are good improvisers often get famous – Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell to name a few.   They tend to be great performers.  They also tend to be great listeners, great supporters, great collaborators, great storytellers, and they are experts at being non-judgmental of themselves and others. They are fearless and creative and engaging. They are comfortable being uncomfortable so their natural personality and wit can come out.  There are many exercises that improvisers practice (yes practice) that help them build these skills.  These are muscles that can be developed…by anyone.  Some lessons are philosophical and some are tactical.  We’re going to introduce and unpack some of these and translate their applicability to the GRC professional.

Yes – And

Well, we’ve made it all the way to Lesson #4 without discussing the most fundamental tenet of improvisation, and that is, Yes-And. If you have ever taken a class or read about improv, you always hear about Yes-And.  Yes-And is central to the art and skill of improvisation.  It is a practical methodology and a philosophy.  Improv is an ensemble art form, where two or more people are creating together.  To be successful, you need the rule of Yes-And in place, so that you have a foundation from which to create in.  Think of it as one of the main instruments that allows the group to play music together (and of course that music can be good or bad, which is of course, highly subjective).  Yes-And is the engine that powers the vehicle that helps move an idea forward.

On stage, Yes-And means to accept, agree and add.  When you are improvising, no matter what is said, you accept it, agree to that reality and then add something.  And this is reciprocated.  Pretty simple.  In improv, there are no mistakes, only gifts.  If one person offers up some information, it is immediately agreed to and used as a jumping off point to build from.  And that in turn is agreed to and built upon, until together you’ve created a world where these characters exist and the audience has a little peek into what is going on in that world.  In a scene if person A says, “It’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it Gary?” Person B can respond with, “Yes it is Terence.  And I can almost see the sun through these bars” …and we’re off and running on this adventure.  If Person B had responded with, “No, it’s nighttime and my name isn’t Gary, it’s Bob” then we’re confused and stuck in mud.  Person A can literally say or do anything.  If they have a brain-cramp and just stammer and grunt.  Person B will Yes-And that, by accepting that information and building off of it. “Oh, too much garlic in the mashed potatoes Kim?”  or “grunt…Paolo like Storg too. Let’s go make fire.”  Accept…Agree…Add…repeat.

An Improv Exercise

The following exercise will help explore this further.  Split up into pairs or small groups and give yourself the goal of planning a party or a trip somewhere.  Establish one person as the initiator and the rest of the group takes turns responding. Give yourselves 3-5 minutes per round.

  • In Round 1 of this exercise, the only rule is that each statement has to be met with the phrase “No, Because, (fill-in-the-blank).” The initiator can defend their idea or move on to another, which is always met with “No, Because, (fill-in-the-blank)”
  • In Round 2 of this exercise, pick a different initiator, and the only rule of this round is that every response must begin with “Yes, But, (fill-in-the-blank)” The initiator can defend their idea or move on to another, which is always met with “Yes, But, (fill-in-the-blank)”
  • In Round 3 of this exercise, pick a different initiator, and the only rule of this round is that every response must begin with “Yes, And, (fill-in-the-blank)”

This is a simple but fascinating exercise that illuminates a few different behaviors and teachable moments.  In a live workshop we would debrief these experiences after each round, but for the purposes of this piece the following are a few lessons, observations and takeaways of the Yes-And exercise as it relates to GRC and leadership.

Translating to GRC

No and Negativity.
‘No’ stops action. ‘No’ can be a way of keeping control.  ‘No’ is used to keep you safe.  In improvisation, ‘no’ and negating, kills a scene.  It stops a scene from moving forward and often leads to argument.

In scenario 1, in the exercise above, the person pitching ideas is always met with “no, because” over and over again.  What we often see is the initiator gets frustrated, leans-in, rolls up their sleeves and keeps pushing.  “These are great ideas…how could you say no!”  Well, it was built into the rules, but its in many of our nature to dig in and fight.  We also often see the initiator shake their head, throw up their hands and give up.  “I mean; I know you are going to say ‘no’ so what’s the point.”  In both cases, the initiators ideas go nowhere leading to anger, apathy and frustration by all in the group.

In the GRC space, the word ‘no’ can be pretty common.  It can be a necessary and valuable tool.  “Can I accept these VIP tickets and backstage passes to see Chumbawamba at the Enormodome, from a potential vendor?” “Uhhh…no…no you cannot” is probably a common response. “Who or what is Chumbawamba?” is probably pretty common as well.  There is nothing wrong with the word ‘no.’  It is simple and direct.  It keeps the company safe in this context.  The word ‘no’ does, however, come with some consequences.  It can lead your audience to feel anger, apathy and frustration. And perhaps they won’t come to you for advice next time


‘Yes, But’ is a pretty common phrase we hear in our lives.  In scenario 2, in the exercise above, the person pitching ideas is met with ‘yes, but’ over and over again.  We often see people have the same experience as scenario 1.  They hear the ‘but’ as a ‘no’ that negates everything before it, leading to anger, apathy and frustration.  People often use ‘yes, but’ as a polite way to say ‘no.’ You want to be nice.  But to your audience, they just hear a ‘no.’  Some people prefer ‘yes, but’ to a ‘no’ but some do not.   Or maybe you are just a positive person and you like to start your sentences with a ‘yes’ and then as you continue your sentence to offer additional knowledge insights and ideas, you throw in a ‘but’ as in “have you thought about these things.”  Unfortunately to your audience, the ‘but’ makes it feel like obstacles and is often perceived as not helpful.  Your attempt at being supportive is negated by your word-choice.


I invite you to think of the ‘yes’ in Yes-And as affirmation, not agreement.  It means, I’m listening…I’m hearing you…I understand your point of view.  The ‘yes’ is validation and the ‘and’ propels the scene/conversation/idea forward in a positive way. ‘Yes’ advances action and ‘no’ stops action.  Yes-And is the gas and ‘no’ is the breaks.

In scenario 3, in the exercise above, we see a dramatic shift in group behavior.  The person pitching ideas is met with a series of adds that takes the idea further, which leads to new information and new ideas and so on, and so on, and so on.  We typically see the volume in the room rise, more smiles and more exuberance.  The initial idea tends to go into new and interesting places and perhaps most importantly, it shifts from becoming “my idea” to “our idea.”  The simple phrase, of Yes-And propels a conversation forward, positively and in collaboration with others.

I invite you to think about Yes-And as a philosophy.  You can have a Yes-And mindset without using the actual words.  The ‘yes’ is validating what you heard, which can be done with a smile or a nod or repeating back what you just heard. It’s a way to make sure the person or people across from you feel listened to and understood. Then comes the ‘and.’  ‘And’ is powerful. It, by definition, is additive.  It is a way to build a bridge in the conversation to a better solution, which you come to together, collaboratively.  Affirming and building on the ideas of others moves a solution from yours to ours.  Yes-And can build trust.  This is particularly important in GRC as you continually try to build bridges with your business colleagues and shift to being a greater influencer, advisor and educator.

Going back to our little scenario earlier of an employee approaching you with a question. “Can I accept these VIP tickets and backstage passes to see Chumbawamba at the Enormodome, from a potential vendor?” Instead of the knee-jerk ‘no’ answer, here is an example of a Yes-And response might be: “Oh I love Chumbawamba.  Let’s see, they are from a potential vendor that you are doing business with, Yes?  (the Affirmation/Yes) That could have an impact on influencing your business decision or at least appear to have that influence.  And we have a policy that’s in place to avoid these scenarios to ensure that we make all our decisions based on merit (the And). What do you think?”  This is but one example of how to use Yes-And to redirect a conversation from a negative to a more inclusive positive.

Improvisers use the Yes-And philosophy as a way to productively move conversations and ideas forward, positively and collaboratively.   Here are a few additional thoughts and ideas.

  • No as a reflex. No is often a knee-jerk, reflex.  Once your ear is tuned in to it, you will start noticing it everywhere.  You’ll even hear the phrase, “no, but yeah!” all the time.  As an exercise, count how many times you hear the word ‘no’ in a conversation and write it down.  Even better, try go 24 hours without saying the word ‘no.’  This one is an eye-opener.  The first step toward changing behavior is awareness. Good luck! 🙂
  • You might be wrong. ‘No’ is a way of keeping control. You are literally shutting down someone’s idea and stopping action.  This is often a way of keeping control over an idea or a situation or a person.  Yes-And keeps you open to possibility.  Said another way, sometimes you are wrong…or wrongish.  A Yes-And mindset is a reminder that sometimes other opinions and ideas can lead you (and the team) to new places.
  • Yes-And is inclusive. It shifts conversations and ideas from an ‘I’ to a ‘We.’ This is critical in leadership, building trust and building bridges with your business colleagues.
  • Yes-And for New Ideas. Set aside a specific amount of time to Yes-And every idea. Resist the urge to judge or critique that idea in any way, shape or form.  You can do that later.  This simple concept will help the group go to new and interesting places you would not have gotten to if you worked on each idea, one at a time.  You don’t have to love every idea, but you should love every idea for a little while.
  • Yes-And makes your audience feel good.

Remember, in terms of communication, you can only control your side of the conversation.  You will encounter many No-Becausers and many Yes-Butters.  Your job is to adjust how you communicate.  You can work at how to turn a negative into a positive.  You can work at how to make an idea, our idea.  As a leader, you are modeling behavior you’d like to see in others, and if you do, it has a shot at rubbing off.  They may not know that your secret Yes-Anding is why you are a positive, helpful affirming person.  They just know that they like and trust you.

As they say in the biz….Annnnd…scene!

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