‘Yes, and’ Rule: 2 Little Words That Can Drive Better Communication

Do you want to be heard? You can with two little words: “yes, and.”

Recently at a talk by Lisa Genova, neuroscientist and author of Still Alice about a Harvard University professor who suffers early-onset Alzheimer's, she shared a great technique to connect and communicate with those who have the disease. She uses a “yes, and” rule.

Here’s how it works. Alzheimer’s patients, Genova said, do not like being corrected (who does?) when they say something that is wrong or can represent even blatant nonsense. To do so, means making them frustrated. Angry. It alienates them from you, she said. “When Nana [her grandmother who had Alzheimer’s] would say her mom (who was deceased) was coming to pick her up, instead of correcting her,” Genova said, “‘Yes, and can I wait with you?’ It’s not what you’re saying, it’s the emotional connection,” she explained.

It was the best take away of the evening. This technique has legs beyond communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s. It makes sense. When you fight anyone’s feelings and values, you send the message: “I’m right and you are not. I don’t care how you feel.” It makes them defensive. A connection is fractured.

Saying “yes, and” creates space to say what you have to say and then what they have to say. But doing so—slowing down and taking your time to respond without attacking or cutting them off--is not effortless. We can fall easily into our old habits of communication: interrupting, judging and not listening. 

Old script: Woman #1: “I prefer cooking with margarine.” Woman #2: “Yuck. Using margarine is gross and it’s terrible for your cholesterol. Too much margarine can kill you.” This is rude, closes the door on further communication, and may even escalate into a battle where the two of you vow never to speak again.

New script: Woman #1: “I prefer cooking with margarine.” Woman #2: “Yes, and margarine is good for some cooking, but I like to use butter for baking. I prefer the taste. But if you like margarine, I understand. That appeals to you more.”

This “yes, and” rule got us thinking how we could use this technique to improve our communication with our parents and kids. Margaret wishes she had known about this tactic before her mother died. She had mild Alzheimer’s.

Barbara knows she needs to respect her mother’s opinions. At 99, her mind is sharp, and she can make choices but sometimes they make life more difficult for Barbara, her primary caregiver. Case in point: Barbara tried New York City’s version of Meals on Wheels. Her mother disliked it and wanted it cancelled. Barbara kept saying “no” since she liked someone arriving, opening the door, and delivering fresh food. Her mother persisted. Finally, Barbara tried, “Yes, and I’ll stop it when I come up with plan B.” She did, and both felt happy!

What about saying “yes, and” with our kids? One of our goals as parents is to teach our children how to make their own decisions. They might say, “Mom, I hate my job.” We might then immediately jump in and say, “Well then, look for something new. Polish you resume. Start networking.” Obviously, they know this. All they really want to do is vent, to hear themselves process out loud before they act. You could say instead, “Yes, and I hope you find what you want.” Enough said, which they will listen to; long discourses turn them away!

We also want to tackle communicating better with other family and friends in everyday repartee. Here is a paraphrase of a parable that best describes what people really want when they have a conversation. 

Four hungry travelers from different countries were deciding what to buy with the single coin they held in common. One wanted to spend it on bread, another on bottled water, another on a juicy burger, and the other on a pint of double chocolate ice cream. Confusion turned to anger as the four argued among themselves about how to spend the coin. It took a passing person who heard the rhetoric heating up to explain to them that they were all, in fact, asking for the same thing: to be heard.

This triggered an idea the two of us agreed upon—although we rarely disagree-using our new communication skills on Thanksgiving when members of our families gathered. We went around the dinner table and had each tell the others what we were grateful for, what we were anxious about, and what we hoped for the coming year. We were not allowed to comment, question or interrupt. Just listen. And as expected, there were many similarities--similar dreams, aspirations, fears, anxieties, gratitude for all that we’ve been given. There were differences, too. And although we expressed our feelings in various ways, we all really wanted the same thing at that moment: a time to be heard.

Remember that perfecting any new skill takes time and practice to learn to say “yes, and” in moments of heated discussion and disagreement. The next time you feel like jumping down someone’s throat for what they say, stop, say your own custom mantra, then listen and wait. The results might be amazing.


1 comment

  • Lynn Marks

    thanks for the great suggestions!!
    wish my mom were alive - i’d suggest that SHE follow the suggested rule too. :)

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