… So, say "yes." In fact, say "yes" as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about Improv. That was, "yes-and." In this case, "yes-and" is a verb. To "yes-and." I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And “yes-anding” means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what's going to happen, maybe with someone you've never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you're doctors -- you're doctors. And then, you add to that: “We're doctors and we're trapped in an ice cave.” That's the "-and." And then hopefully they "yes-and" you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other's lead, neither of you are really in control. It's more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.
- Stephen Colbert, from his 2006 Knox College commencement address
I had heard about Colbert’s now-classic commencement address for some time but only recently tracked it down and read it in its entirety. It was truly unlike most college commencement addresses – you know the kind; rather dry, if carefully and lovingly constructed by the honored speech giver struggling to break through the collective hangover to impart years of accumulated wisdom onto the eager graduates stepping out into the “real world,” only to be instantly filed away in that section of the brain labeled “Stuff To Never Think About Again… Ever.”
Colbert’s was different. It was excellent. Fun, funny, and for all but the final minutes, anything but deep. And then he offered his profoundly simple advice: Say, “YES.”
When given the chance to do something new or different, “outside the box,” or that will challenge or stretch your abilities, how often do you say, “Yes”? How often when the opportunity is something you never imagined yourself doing, or is far removed from anything you normally are interested in? Ever? How about when saying “yes” almost certainly guarantees some level of discomfort despite the promise of a possibly greater payoff?
For many of us, “No” becomes an easy default. Weary, wary, with too much responsibility and too little time, we retreat from new challenges and decide it’s just easier and safer to “go with what (we) know.” Other folks might consider themselves fully formed; they know what they like, what they’re comfortable with, how they do things and why, and the idea of learning or doing something new and outside those carefully defined parameters is viewed with suspicion or disdain. There’s almost a pride in the rigidity.
It sometimes seems we in the law enforcement world are particularly susceptible to the lure of just saying “NO” to those things that may be challenging or difficult or “different.” We tend to embrace a deeper wariness of the world, and weariness from policing its darker corners. For a lot of cops that pride in rigidity is a trademark. Not all, but enough that you probably recognize it in some of the people you work with. Or maybe even in yourself. We also know that saying “yes” to the wrong things or in the wrong situations gets people in oodles of trouble and in the interest of self-preservation, we opt for safety. Obviously, however, those outright dangerous choices aren’t the things or situations we’re talking about here.
The problem with choosing “no” too often is the danger that it poses to potentially rewarding experiences and opportunities.
Are you afraid to go for a new position at the department? Just say, “No, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway, or what if I did and hated it? Better to stay where I am.”
Have you always wanted to start up a business, or market yourself and your skills as a trainer, writer, or consultant, but you’re nervous about how you’d do? Just say, “No, the risk is just too great and I’ll probably fail, so why not just shelve those silly pipedreams?”
Your daughter’s softball team needs a new coach and she has been begging you to take it on – you were all-conference in college, after all – but you work really hard giving and serving the community all day, and you’re tired, and you’re not really comfortable with other peoples’ kids, and… . Just say, “No, it might be kind of fun, and I could bond with the kid, but someone else will step up and do just fine. She’ll understand that Mom’s busy with work. Besides, they’re teenagers; they don’t want to be coached by a COP, do they?”
Your wife has been saying she wants more time with you, and keeps proposing classes, weekend getaways, and day trips together, but none of them are really your cup of tea. Now she wants to take a ballroom dancing class and you know you’ll never be able to do that. Just say, “No, I have two left feet and I’d only embarrass myself. Maybe she’ll keep suggesting new things until there’s something I’d like to do. I’m really tired after work, anyway…”
Of course, these are only a few simple examples; the list of what most of us will reflexively say “no” to is extensive. But what if you, or the sample officers who might fit the bill for the above scenarios, started saying “Yes”? How might things be different if we started saying “yes” much more than “no” to those opportunities, challenges, risks, and requests we face every day that we either refuse directly or by avoidance? And what if we started saying not just “yes, but really “Yes, Anding…” a whole lot more.
“I’m putting in for that school resource officer position (YES), and I’ll make myself a better candidate by getting certified as a Juvenile Officer, even if I have to pay for it myself…”
“Now’s the perfect time to start up that security consulting business I’ve always dreamed of; I’m employed full time, so I can start slowly and learn as I go (YES), and maybe I’ll ask a couple of the guys from work if they’d like to get in on the ground floor…”
“I was a great player in my day; I bet I’d be a great coach now (YES), and I can be a great female role model for those girls while presenting a positive image of cops to them”
“She’s been a great wife who supports my career all this time. She really wants to do this so I can suck it up and learn to dance a little bit. Maybe it will be fun after all (YES), and maybe she’ll still want to take that cooking class she was talking about, too, I bet we could have a good time doing that together.”
In each of these examples, instead of saying “no” the central character not only says “yes” but then raises the stakes. They’re starting to take a good idea and improvise an even better and more vibrant idea out of it. When you begin to do this consistently you just might, as Colbert says about Improv, find yourself surprised with where you find yourself going, professionally and personally.
This might seem like an ridiculously simple concept. And it is on the surface but, deep down, we tend to be skeptical. We resist new ideas, and complicate simple concepts with our own hang-ups and emotional baggage. We cling to bad habits.
We’re going to explore The Power of “Yes, and…” more deeply in our next article. In the meantime, begin taking stock of all those things you so routinely say “no” to. Ask yourself why, and if maybe saying “yes” a little more might not make life a little brighter for you.
About The Authors:
Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.
Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.
Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.
Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.