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DEI wisdom from the art of Improv

“Yes, and …”

This is one of the fundamental pillars of improv, the origin of so many of our greatest comedic personalities.

Improv, short for improvisation, is when actors play out a scene without any scripts, practice, or foreknowledge of what the scene will be about. They have no idea what their fellow performers will say or do. They must react in the moment, ideally building to something clever and hilarious.

The key to navigating this fluid ad-hoc art form is to keep the scene moving forward. Reject or ignore another performer’s contribution, and the scene stops, feels disconnected, lost, or sloppy.

“Move faster Bill. If we don’t get there in time the flying elephants will leave without us.”

“I’m not bill” or

“There’s no such thing as flying elephants.” or

“Let’s go to the Greek restaurant.”

Doesn’t work at all, does it.

Instead, improv actors must continue the story by accepting and building on what was previously said or done. However, that doesn’t mean they must agree or continue down a straight path of the story – twists and turns are what creates great comedy, as long as they flow.

“Move faster Bill. If we don’t get there in time, the flying elephants will leave without us.”

“You won’t get there in time no matter how fast you move. The elephants are that way” or

“So… we’re calling it ‘flying elephants’ again, are we?” or

“Aren’t you a little old for the Dumbo ride?”

This technique of continuing the story is “Yes, and …”. Accept what is said, then add upon it or redirect it in a way where the story continues to flow.

“Yes, and …” is so powerful, it has uses far beyond improv comedy. Consider how useful this technique would be applied to difficult conversations such as those commonly had in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

The power of ‘Yes, and …” in DEI

DEI conversations are often shrouded in emotion. They can quickly become heated, passionate, and personal. And much like improv, when facilitating or partaking in a DEI discussion, you won’t always predict what will be said, or how someone will react.

“I avoid working with Veterans. They are so formal and ‘by the book’ and can’t act without someone telling them what to do.”

“Women are just not good engineers. It’s not their fault, they just aren’t wired ‘that way.’”

‘It is ridiculous that we have to be so sensitive about gender these days. It used to be easy – men wore ties, women wore skirts, everyone knew the roles they were meant to play.”

“I don’t see color. You can do the job, or you can’t. It’s just a fact that there are so few people of color who can really do the job.”

If you reject someone’s contribution, even if it is off-topic, irrelevant, misguided, wrong, that person may feel attacked, devalued, or unincluded (the exact opposite of DEI). But, if the contribution is off-topic, irrelevant, misguided, or wrong, you can’t agree with them or continue down the wrong path either. So, what do you do?

“Yes, and …”

Acknowledge what the person has said then redirect to pull the conversation back to the appropriate, empowering, and inclusive.

“You must have had a difficult experience. Luckily, such an experience is not the norm…” or,

“I understand why you could see it that way. Consider the point of view of…” or,

“Interesting point. Did you know that there is inequity in how…”

Then tie the acknowledgement back to the goal of the conversation or to a productive call to action.

“How should we as an organization make sure no one ever has the negative experience you had?” or

“What guidelines can we establish to help navigate those challenges to ensure a positive employee experience for everyone?” or

“That is an important topic to explore during our conversations about microaggressions and for cultivating the next generation of talent. For the purposes of this conversation, how can we take the lessons from your experiences and apply them to ensure our interview questions are as inclusive as possible?”

Bringing it all together – driving diversity conversation with “yes and …”

DEI conversations are called “courageous” for a reason – they are difficult. DEI topics can provoke strong emotions, passions, and personal pain. They can highlight tension points, conflicting beliefs, and uncomfortable situations. These conversations can be made far more difficult with contributions that are off-topic, inappropriate, or misguided. When these difficult conversations take a sharp turn toward the unproductive and detrimental, don’t shut them down with a rejection. Instead, use the wisdom of Improv – “yes, and …” – acknowledge and redirect back to the purpose and goal of the conversation. Conclude with a call to action to focus the group’s attention on the productive.

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