Getting attacked verbally? Two words.

Suppose someone at work—your boss, or a key client—is unhappy with your performance. Your instinct is to debate and defend.

Your instinct may be wrong.

1) The technique, “Yes and” comes from improvisational theatre. If you’re an improv actor, your job is to agree.

“Be a tiger,” the audience says.

You can’t say, “No, I don’t feel like a tiger today. I’m too bloated. I feel like an elephant—an elephant in search of a gluten-free diet.”

2) “Yes and” starts with agreement. Maybe you can agree with the facts (e.g. you under-performed), or maybe you can agree with the other person’s feeling (e.g. frustration). But if possible, agree on something.

3) Suppose you disagree? “You’re a complete idiot,” your critic says. But you’re thinking, Wait, I’m really only a partial idiot.

You could say, “I appreciate your directness. Please go on.” Or, “I know you’re frustrated with me—I’d like to understand why.”

At some point, you can also say, “I’m not sure I completely agree” (watch your tone of voice here). But listen first.

4) “Yes” can take many forms.

For example, when asked a tough question: “I’m glad you asked that.” Or, “Other clients have asked the same thing.” Or, “I’d be wondering that too if I were you.”

When someone complains: “You’re right, that’s not up to our standards either.”

All these things say “yes.”

5) What about simply saying, “I understand,” or “Got it.”

Unsatisfying. What, exactly, did you get?

Suppose you get your spouse 1% milk when she really asked for 2%. “Honey,” you say, “I got it.” But you didn’t get the right thing, did you? Uh-oh.


Saying “I got it,” is too fat-free. Go the extra 2%: confirm what you got.

6) When you offer your perspective—the “and” in “yes and”—you can either talk about the past (why this thing happened), or the future (what you’re going to do about it). Or both.

7) When talking about the past, keep your explanation short. You might say, “You’re right, we did underperform. Can I tell you what happened?”

Suppose there were 10 contributing factors. Just give the top two or three.

8) Talking about the future offers hope. Excellent, as long as you don’t over-promise.

9) Avoid the word “but.” “But” is a killer, it negates everything. “I agree with you BUT” spells trouble. “I agree with you AND” sounds better—even if you proceed to say the same thing.

10) You may be thinking, “Wait a minute, mister.
There’s no way this technique will work all the time.”

You’re right. Techniques like this, done mechanically, sound hollow.

You also need genuine intention—in this case, to find agreement. What can you agree on? Your critic isn’t 100% delusional. Or is he???

One more thing: if the other person crosses the line from civility to abuse, change tactics.

Tip: When attacked, use verbal judo: disarm with agreement.

© Copyright 2015 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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