The “Yes, And…” Icebreaker

Reading Time: 1.5 mins

Icebreaker Time:  6-10 mins

It’s 92 degrees with 90% humidity and there isn’t even a fan in the room. Our teacher is twenty minutes late. A long-time student stands and turns to face us.

“While we’re waiting for Bob, I think he’d like me to tell you about the two rules of improv. The first rule is to say yes to everything.  Unless we say an unconditional yes to everything, there is nothing to create a scene with.  ‘No’ kills the scene, so we say ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but.’  ‘Yes, but’ is just an indirect way of saying ‘no.'”

Someone raises their hand, and asks “What’s the second rule?”

“The second rule of improv is that there is no second rule of improv.”  We all laugh and get up nervously to practice in pairs.  One-by-one, someone doubles over with laughter.  It’s like a big game of whack-a-mole:  People who were standing talking suddenly are laughing so hard they cannot stand.  Bob shouts over us:  “Let’s workshop this” and most of us sit down to watch the pair he has singled out.  One of them is still bent over laughing.

Bob gives them a word to start with:  Blister.

“Knock, knock”

“I hate knock-knock jokes.”  (Yes, but – I’ll play, just not your way)

“No really – knock, knock.”  (Yes, but – play my way or not at all.)

His partner freezes.  There is a moment of uncomfortable silence before Bob steps in full of attitude and says “Fine.  Who’s there?”


Bob, rolling his eyes and sighing, says “Bliss who?”

“Bliss-ter!  Get it?”

“How did you know I had a blister?  That’s amazing!  Wait – can you read minds?”

And the scene takes off.

Play to Control or Play to Explore?

You’ve probably been in loads of “yes, but” meetings, meetings where one or more people came with an idea they want others to adopt while pretending to “want input,” or “be open to feedback,” or say “let’s figure this out together.”  And you’ve felt the energy die and seen awkwardness creep in just like it did in the above example.  While it is perfectly valid to ask people to see things your way, pretending otherwise can create a callous in a group.  Over time, this pretense becomes the way we meet and can even evolve into:  “While you are pretending to listen to me, I am pretending to agree with you.”  Demanding control is like that:  It stalls creativity and true collaboration.

The “Yes, And” Icebreaker

The “Yes, And” Icebreaker is a playful way to break up old habits and get the spirit of improv and creativity back in your meetings.  It’s simple, easy and quick:

  1. Agree on a time.  3-5 minutes for the icebreaker and 3-5 minutes to debrief works well.
  2. Set a ground rule of responding to everything by saying “Yes, and…”
  3. The first person makes a statement and the person next to them (the second person) responds by saying “yes, and…”
  4. The next person in the circle responds to what the second person says by saying “yes, and..”
  5. Proceed around the circle until the game stops of its own accord or you run out of time.
  6. Debrief by asking people to reflect on what happened.  Ask how the icebreaker differs from a typical meeting.  Ask how “yes, and” can become a part of regular meetings.

Hint:  Look for speed and fluency – do rounds where you speed up the response time; adopt a ground rule of no pausing, etc.  The focus is on letting go of where you think the conversation was going or should have gone.  Think up your own variations.

Here’s an example

First person: “Dogs are the best pets.”

Second person: “Yes, and I love how they bark at everything.”

Third person “Yes, and their soft coats are my favorite part.”

Fourth person: “Yes, and I like that you can take them to the pound if they don’t work out.”

Fifth person: “Yes, and ‘pound’ reminds me that I love pound cake!   Lemon is my favorite.”

Sixth person:  “Yes, and I love pounding things too – like dough when I make bread.”

Don’t forget to let me know in the comments how this works for you – and share your variations with the rest of us too.  We thank you!


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