“Yes, and…” is the grounding tenet in improvisation, where participants are encouraged to accept and add on to their colleagues’ responses. This iconic duo of words may sound familiar to you, from a distant improv acting class or public speaking lesson. For me, the words “yes, and” are etched in my memory from my days of improv, a time that gave me the skill of creative brainstorming and cultivating space for an accepting forum of thoughts and ideas. It is a phrase used to remind the improviser to never reject an idea, but rather expand on it. My days of improv and acting were short-lived but had a lasting impact how I function as a communicator to this present day.
In an organizational context, “yes, and” metaphorically is a welcoming technique – one that shows belonging and acceptance of ideas, sans judgement. I reflect on my approach to the many facets of my life – personal and professional – and think back to the “yes, and” approach I find myself mirroring.
While it is not literally an activity that I practice in my life, many of us might relate to the “yes, and” culture that life’s demands can exacerbate. Handling work projects, tending to family and friends, maintaining health and well-being, ingesting the perpetually grief-striking news cycle, and all the juggling of life’s other tasks suddenly takes me back to improv, where I was saying “yes, and” to everything, and then some.
Life these days can feel as such, where we say “yes, and” instinctively, rather than intentionally.
Over the last months, I found myself missing deadlines, spacing out, and hitting emotional walls at work. I was overpromising and underdelivering to so many people in my life, from friends, to colleagues, to mentees, to clients, and most notably – to myself. These were all realities that I confronted as a consequence to my “yes, and” approach to all the things I wanted to engage with, ignoring the very real matter of capacity. I had given so many yeses to people in my life that it was not sustainable in upholding the promises that the yeses entailed.
I was called a “people pleaser” for much of my life. Throughout K-12, I made good grades, satisfied teachers, made parents proud, did the many things according to “plan” and pleased everyone in my life with the desires they held for me. Family expectations and a society’s cultural upbringing of a young girl conditioned that to many degrees, but satisfying all the stakeholders in my life, was something that has been at the forefront of much of my life.
Between the conditioning that many people – particularly women of color, immigrants, and those in community-oriented households – experience with regards to being raised as nurturing and functioning in a country where workforce culture celebrates busyness and hustle culture, I found myself deep in the weeds of my teenage improv class, where my initial response was “yes, and” to anything that was asked of me.
I took a long pause in the Spring and told myself that the things I wanted to pursue would only be possible and plausible if I was honest with myself and others about what resources are needed to fulfill those things. Learning to exercise the muscle of asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather of great strength. The perceptiveness of gauging the very real needs for something is an act of courage and leadership. Do I have the time, the emotional capacity, and the headspace? If not, what support is needed to actualize the time, capacity and headspace that is necessary for something? These last few months have led me to leading with these questions when I am tasked with a new ask.
Saying no to one thing is hardly a no, as it is always saying yes to something else, even if it is yourself.
While I still keep my days of improv at the forefront of my life, I have added this new piece that I have learned: yes, and, it is okay to say no.
Bottom line: In a world where it is critical to preserve energy, treating time as a form of currency can serve as a guide in discerning how you allocate your time. Exercising realistic commitments and shifting the parameters of asks is one way of owning a task within your means and capacity. And consider offering that same invitation to your colleagues, when project planning as a team, take a moment to decipher between what is urgent, what is priority, what is necessary, and what can wait.
Carrie Fox is on vacation today, so we’re happy to bring you this guest entry from Mission Partners’ senior strategist Nimra Haroon. This is week 25 of the Finding The Words column, a series published every Wednesday that delivers a dose of communication insights direct to your inbox. If you like what you read, we hope you’ll subscribe to ensure you receive this each week.