In comedic improvisation, the principle of “yes and” means that first you agree with your partner’s premise, and then you add to it. Without this essential principle, the scene couldn’t go anywhere. And while applying “yes and” to real life is a bit of a business-world cliché, I’ve found that it’s a great way to redirect potential arguments into jovial banter, and keep everyone on the same team.
Photo: Benjamin Ragheb
In improv, if we walk on stage and I say “Sire, the peasants are at the castle gate with pitchforks!” what I mean is “You are going to play a medieval king, I’m your servant or adviser, and we’re in conflict with angry peasants.” That’s why you don’t reply with “Why are you talking all weird, Freddy? Get back in the cop car!” That’s funny exactly once, and it makes it very hard to build a scene. To get more than one joke, we have to first agree on the base reality.
Arguments, the sneaky bastards, often spring up in real life because we don’t agree on some base reality. When my wife says “You forgot to put away the chips last night,” I know that she’s really saying “We’re worried about mice, so it’s important that we don’t leave food out.”
If I’m in a bad mood, I might argue that it isn’t important, with “So what, look, nothing ate them!” Or maybe defend myself with “I only left them out because I was so busy doing our taxes!” The first response rejects my wife’s base reality, by insisting that we don’t need to worry about mice. The second just ignores her reality and introduces my own. And now the argument can begin.
But if instead, I say “Oh, you like the little snack I left for the mice?” then I’m accepting her base reality. I’m saying “I agree that there are consequences to leaving food out,” and setting myself up to agree with her by poking fun at my mistake.
The nice trick to this is that because I’m treating it as a joke, I don’t feel that nasty little defensive voice in my head, insisting that it was her job to put the chips away, or that mice don’t even eat chips. Who cares? Whether or not we fight, in an hour I’ll probably realise she was right, so in the interim let’s just get along. (This joke technique works great for small things; don’t rely on it for actually big discussions.)
I’m sure you’ve never started an argument over something so dumb and small. But next time someone else is being a dick and starting an argument, try agreeing with their base reality. Couch it in a joke if you like. Accept that you’re the king, and the peasants are revolting. (“I know, and they smell bad too!”) It’s hard to have a fight when everyone’s busy agreeing with each other.