[This is the 5th installment in our series, Language Matters. If you missed the others you can find them here, and here and here and here.]

Have you ever found yourself in one of the following situations?

  • Someone is telling you about their idea/project/strategy and you’re pretty sure it’s not gonna work (and why), but you don’t want to hurt their feelings, or you’re pretty sure they won’t listen anyway.
  • You’re debating (er…arguing) with someone and are having trouble getting your point heard.
  • You’re trying to convince someone of something or to do something, but they’re holding firm.

I’m willing to bet that you’re nodding along. Most of us find ourselves involved in daily conversations such as the above, and it can be maddening to feel as though you’re speaking to a brick wall. Immovable.

And while these are frustrating circumstances, for sure, what can be even more painful is how much time these conversations are taking out of your day.

You wish they could just see your point, agree, and move on, right? But it doesn’t usually work that way, does it?

Instead, you might agree to disagree and then all that time feels wasted and you may feel disillusioned, disappointed or even angry. And you’re nowhere closer to agreeing.

Well, I have a little conversational trick picked up from the world of improv that you can use in these situations.

What is it? It’s the “yes, and”!

In improv, the idea is that whatever gets lobbed at you, you respond by agreeing (yes) and adding on to it (and).

And here’s where we’ll tweak this technique for our purposes:

We’re going to follow up the “yes, and” with a question.

Instead of trying, to no avail, to convince people that you’re right. Instead, let them convince themselves.

  • Let’s say that your coworker is suggesting an expense that your team doesn’t have the budget for.
    • “Yes, that sounds cool, and I’m wondering where we can pull the budget from?”
  • Or, let’s say your boss is handing you an assignment on a tight timeline that you don’t have time for.
    • “Yes, I’d be delighted to help. And which one of my current projects should we deprioritize to make room for this one?”
  • Or how about when your kid refuses to wear a coat in frigid weather?:
    • “Yes, I understand you don’t want to wear a coat. And I’m wondering what you’ll do when you get cold?”

See how that works?

Usually, we start with “no”, or “yes, but”. And in both cases, we’ve used language that causes the other party to tune out entirely because now the conversation has gotten adversarial (even though that wasn’t our intention). It doesn’t matter how sound your argument is, how reasoned your points are; after the “no” or the “but” they’re no longer listening. They’re digging in their heels.

When you say “yes, and”, however, you’re putting yourself on their side. Now you’re in collaboration mode. And in curiosity mode. Now you’re working together.

Instead of saying “this won’t work because of X”. Now you’re saying “yes, and what will we do about X?”. Maybe they actually have a great answer to that; one you hadn’t thought of and that will work. Or, maybe they don’t. At which point they’ll realize that for themselves. No convincing required. In either case, you get to a resolution much faster, and with the relationship intact, and even strengthened!

In my own mind, I call this technique the “Secret Socratic Method”.

Have you tried it? Will you try it? Let me know!