The Secret of “YES!”

The Secret of "YES!"Once upon a time I thought that using the word “yes” was pretty straight forward: if I agreed, I’d say “yes”.  If not: “no”.  Shortly after signing on for comedy improv lessons I began to see that “yes” had a second, secret identity that I used every day without a second thought.

To experience the power of this secret identity, try the following exercise next time you’re chatting with a friend on the phone: stay quiet. Don’t punctuate the things they say with the usual “uh-huh …”, “yep …” and “ mm …”.  When they come to the end of what they’re saying, don’t utter a word. Any bio-anthropologist or psychologist worth their salt will tell you that our need for acknowledgement far outweighs our need for approval. If you’ve ever been roped into a game of “Schlemiel” you’ll know exactly what I mean*. Here’s how “Schlemiel”  is played:

Ever been host to a terminally clumsy guest? Someone who repeatedly spills drinks, walks into lamps, shares inappropriate observations, sabotages conversational flows or wanders around with a foot permanently embedded in their mouth?  You smile, forgive and play the whole thing down until the strain builds with each new infraction and you feel forced to confront the offender.  This is your offender’s moment of glory.  Up to then, you’ve been giving approval: “That’s OK – it was just an accident.” Now you’re delivering the juicy goods: your acknowledgement.

Back to your friend on the phone – who’s probably having a panic attack by now.  Chances are those “uh-huhs”, “yeps” and “ mm-ms” they’ve been missing have very little to do with you approval and everything to do with your acknowledgement.  Time to end the exercise now – and best of luck mending that breach in your rapport!

Take a moment to consider how this secret identity of “yes” – it’s unsung role as a means of acknowledgement – connects with something happening in your life right now.  What’s one small thing you could do today to have your “yeses” open deeper relationships with those around you?  Keeping an ear open to when you say “yes”, and considering how it might be understood can be two very fruitful starting points.


* For more on “Schlemiel” and other games, check out Eric Berne’s Games People Play. For a highly readable and paradigm-shifting introduction to the role of acknowledgement with a bio-anthropological perspective, check out Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.