Impro-versation: Improvising in Conversation

 


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“Impro-versation"

One of the main concerns of the conversationally-impaired is how to continue a conversation once it’s started. These folks dread the possibility that a conversation will bog down and sink into awkward silence. I am hereby proposing a nearly fail-safe rule for these folks: “Don’t deny what the other person says. " That is, accept what the other person says as a contribution to the conversation; then add to that.

In improvisational theater, the above “Don’t deny" rule is known as “Yes, and. " Your fellow player makes an offer (that is, says or does something), and you add to it. Simple? Yes. Easy? Not always. However, when players stick to this rule, the improvised conversation emerges, grows nicely, and the story-line develops. Audiences are engaged and amused by the rapid flow of discourse and the surprising things that are said.

Example of breaking the “Yes, and" rule:

Player A: “Hey, Bob! Nice yellow shoes you’re wearing. "

Player B: “You must be color-blind. These shoes are black. "

In the above example, player B interrupts the conversational flow by blocking the first player’s offer through denial.

Example of following the “Yes, and" rule:

Player A: “Hey, Bob! Nice yellow shoes you’re wearing. "

Player B: “Yes, and I got them on sale at half-price. "

In the second example, player B accepts the offer and adds to it, thereby continuing the flow. Although improv players don’t always say “Yes, and, " the experienced ones always think “Yes, and" because they understand that by accepting and adding to an offer, the story develops spontaneously.

A brief exercise that demonstrates the power of “but" to frustrate and defeat a group is this: Give a group of 5-6 people a simple assignment such as “Plan a group picnic in 10 minutes. " Then give the instruction that each contribution after the opening comment must be preceded by “Yes, but. " For example:

A: I suggest we picnic at the City Park

B: Yes, but it’s often crowded there.

C: Well, we could go to the seashore.

D: Yes, but the tides are dangerous.

E: How about going to a movie instead?

F: Yes, but we probably can’t get tickets to a good one.

You get the idea. Although this “Yes, but" pattern is exaggerated, it parallels what often happens between people. The “but-ing" blocks and does not allow the conversation to develop. In the mixed message, the “but" erases the “yes. "

To say “Yes, and" does not require you to agree with a comment, only that you acknowledge what was said, and you thereby create a positive climate. The “and" commits you to offering an addition rather than a substitution.

Linguist and author Deborah Tannen refers to our society as “a culture of critique" in her popular book, “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. " As she illustrates, the media are often formatted in a “Yes, but" structure, political right against left, girlfriend vs. boyfriend, plaintiff vs.defendant. This is the stuff of talk-shows, court-shows, sport shows, and outrageous Jerry Springer type shows. Conflict and argument, the producers agree, pay off. Apparently, listeners and viewers are attracted to such conflict and, as mogul Lee Shubert once said of attendance in his theaters, “The box office never lies. "

Although it may be true that “conflict sells" in the media, it is clearly not true that conflict works well in ordinary conversation. Denying, deflecting, ignoring, and all the other ways one can block the contributions of others impede the conversation and almost always manage to shut it down. The negatives are substantial. Among them:

-You’ll probably distance the relationship

-You’ll learn nothing new

-You’ll create awkward moments

-You’ll set up a pattern of opposition rather than collaboration

-Eventually you yourself won’t be acknowledged either

However, when you think of others’ comments as “offers" instead of “challenges, " and your own remarks as “additional offers, " the conversation flows easily. As a small experiment, eliminate any of your “Yes, but" responses from a few conversations and see what happens. You’ll immediately notice the change.

Loren Ekroth ©2004

Loren Ekroth, Ph. D. is a specialist in human communication and an expert on conversation for business and social life. His articles and programs strengthen critical communication skills for business and professional people. Contact at Loren@conversation-matters.com . Check resources and archived articles at http://www.conversation-matters.com

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