Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge: The practice of 'yes' is essential for success

Our friend Bridget is an actor in a small theater troupe. Today, they’re performing a series of short sketches at a corporate event. The curtain goes up, one actor on stage. Jim, sitting at a desk, is holding a piece of pink paper and talking to himself. “C’mon, Jim. You can do this! 10 percent reduction in headcount. Unavoidable. Let’s get this over with. You know you’ve made the right choice.”

Jim walks to his office door. “Angela, can I see you?”

Angela (Bridget) looks nervous as she sits down at Jim’s desk. Jim is hesitant. “Thanks for coming in, Angela. I…I’m not sure how to say this...” Silence… “I think you know that the company has had several unprofitable quarters. Headquarters has ordered some…ah…trimming of our…”

Angela interrupts. “Whew! Is that all? For a moment there, I thought maybe you were upset with me about that big order we lost last week because I made that tiny little calibration error. Don’t scare me like that!

“Jim, I accept your offer. You’ve made exactly the right choice!”

Jim: “I have? You’re OK with this?”

Angele: “I’m excited about it! I’ll do a job on this cost-cutting project like you’ve never seen! I’ve got a lot of ideas already about how we can save on material and time and… Jim, I’ve been keeping a notebook at my station. You may not know this, but not much escapes these peepers. And (Angela looks side-to-side and takes on a conspiratorial look), between you and me, we’ve got some dead wood around here. I have a list…names, times, and details. Jim, you’ve made the right choice with me!”

Jim: “Choice…”

Angela: “We’re going to shine at corporate! I’ll work on this over the weekend and have a preliminary plan on your desk first thing Monday morning!” (Angela pauses.) “Jim, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your confidence in me. I won’t let you down.”

Jim: “Ah…well… I’ll wait to see what you’ve got, Angela. I guess I can wait another couple of days to …take action.”

Angela walks toward the door, then turns around. “Oh, Jim, one more thing you don’t have to worry about. You know the ‘equipment maintenance’ account that’s been funding the Friday afternoon beer parties? Not a word, Jim, not a single word.” (Angela “zips” her lips.) “Jim, you made the right choice with me!”

If you haven’t guessed, Bridget’s troupe does Improv. With no script, the actors each move the story forward and roll with the action while providing openings for their partners to do the same. The team works together, steering each performance to a satisfying end.

Improvisational theater actors work to acquire and improve skills of framing, reframing, and collaboration. They’re willing to make mistakes, to do it “wrong.” The ability to notice quickly whether something is working is vital. If any line of dialogue or bit of action falls flat, team members come to the rescue with more framing, reframing, and collaboration.

The practice of “yes”

When Bridget bravely walks onto the stage, there’s a lot she doesn’t know: she doesn’t know what her partners will say; she doesn’t know what they will do; she doesn’t know where the sketch will lead; she doesn’t know how it will end. But there’s a proven practice of improv that she embraces, onstage and off: she knows that, whatever happens, she will say “yes.” In that moment, her mind and body align, becoming the person who can say yes congruently in a particular situation. Bridget sometimes shocks herself as much as the audience when that person shows up.

Our friend, motivational speaker and life/health coach extraordinaire, Sandra Larkin, made a decision when she left corporate life to start her practice: she decided that she would say “yes.” She said yes to every interesting opportunity that came her way. She said yes to people she met. She said yes to groups. She said yes when they asked her to speak. She said yes to learning as much as she could. She said yes to new adventures. As Sandra grew, so did her practice. She became a sought-after Dale Carnegie speaker and started a corporate wellness company. She has coached hundreds of people, helping them to say “yes” successfully to health and wholeness.

It can be terrifying to really get that we aren’t in control. Improvisational actors deliberately seek the unknown in order to test and develop their skills. The practice of yes could be an essential skill in the coming years of uncertainty. As Steven Colbert said to graduates of Knox College, “So say ‘yes.’ And if you're lucky, you'll find people who will say ‘yes’ back.”

• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge, CreativeCore Media in Algonquin, are marketing, communication, management and training consultants who help small business and non-profits overcome the marketing and motivational myths that are keeping them and their businesses from unbounded success. – .

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