How to redirect a someone in a social justice conversation without shutting them down

All-Star Facilitator Series

This is an one of the many lessons in our All-Star Facilitator Series, designed to help social justice educators improve their skills. Click here to see the rest of the posts, or if you have an idea for a lesson get involved. Note: this series spun off into our book, Unlocking the Magic of Facilitation — where we expand on some of these lessons, and include others.

I was a pretty big fan of improv comedy when I was in high school, but I didn’t truly fall in love until I started to learn and perform it when I was in college. I’ve stopped performing and moved back into the ever-more-comfy role of fan, but there are a ton of indispensable things I learned in improv that I use on a regular basis today.

One of the universal rules of improv also happens to be a rule that leads to welcoming, inclusive, and interactive social justice trainings: the “Yes, And…” rule.

I would like to give credit of my introduction to the “Yes, and…” rule to Ms. Tina Fey’s book Bossy Pants. Now your experience reading (or listening in my case) Bossy Pants may not have been to say, “OMgosh that is totally like what I do with social justice stuff,” buttt that’s how my brain works. So cheers to you, Tina Fey!

It’s a Simple Rule

If someone presents a reality to you, however ridiculous it may seem, you accept it and build upon it, sometimes redirecting toward something you’re more comfortable with, and sometimes continuing down the rabbit hole they’ve created. More simply, you don’t tell someone no. You respond “Yes, and…”

The way it plays out in improv is the scenes are more fluid, fun, and you end up in places that no individual in the troupe would have ever gotten to.  It’s a shared experience, and everyone has agency and some responsibility in creating it. It also cuts down on arguing, authoring other people’s experiences/choices, and judgment.

To return to the Bossy Pants reference, Tina Fey says if you were in a scene and someone said, “I have a gun!” and you responded, “No you don’t! You’re just holding out your finger!” well.. that wouldn’t go very far would it?

The way it plays out in a social justice training is about the same. Your group members will feel safer chiming in, sharing their thoughts and ideas, and the discussions will flow more naturally. You won’t be seen as the Sole Authority Who Has All Answers, and the entire group will have a shared sense of responsibility and say in how the training pans out.

While, like every rule, there are exceptions, more often than not “Yes, And…” will lead to more positive learning experiences than “No, Because…” Even though the latter will likely be your instinct until you get some practice.

But it’s Sometimes Simpler Said than Done

Like a lot of things I’ve written about, this rule might be the exact opposite of what your gut tells you to do. If someone in a training says, “All the gay people I know are stylish,” your reflex will likely be “No” with a side of “Um. Really. No.”

But don’t trust your instincts, Luke. By now, you know them to not be true.

Instead, give “Yes, And…” a shot, and see where it can get you. Here are a few different ways you could “Yes, And…”

Them: “All the gay men I know are stylish.”

You: “Yes, and there are many gay men who are stylish. But there are also many gay people who aren’t, who don’t care about style at all.”

You: “Yes, and all the gay people I know are stylish, too. It could be because they happen to have that trait, or it could be a byproduct of a pressure they may feel to conform to that expectation of gay men. We call that internalized oppression. Anyone know how that works?”

You: “Yes, and you’re probably a judgmental person who only hangs out with stylish people have you ever thought MAYBE YOU’RE THE PROBL — sorry. I… I don’t know what came over me there. Not a good example, but you get the point. I think. Maybe? Just in case…

Becoming A “Yes, And…” Master

Let’s break this down. If you’re unconvinced, or unsure of your “Yes, And…” prowess, these next few bullets are just for you.

Don’t be a [knee] jerk. You are more than a reflex, and when facilitating a discussion you need to do more than react. You need to listen, hear, process, and respond in the way that will be the biggest benefit to the group. It’s easy to shoot someone down. It’s harder to take them where they are and walk together to somewhere new.

Take a big breath. Breathing is good, in general, but it’s also a great time to collect your thoughts. During that breath think about who the person is who said the thing you want to “NO,” why they may have said it, how they’re a part of a system just like everyone else, and — oh, there it is, right? You get where they’re coming from, maybe. You’ve got a “Yes, And…” and it only took one breath.

Think about where you want the scene to go. They’ve created the scene, but you have a say in how it develops. What do you want the story arc to be? What will the moral be at the end? Decide on these things, but also remember you’re not the only person writing this play. “What binds the fabric together when the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?” You. You do.

Practice it at home folks.  This isn’t something you only have to get good at in workshops, it can be used in all areas of your life, purdy much whenever you disagree with someone who is saying something.  Practice in class or with your little brother, it gets easier to do it in those pressure situations when you’ve already got a couple good, yes-and-I-totally-disagree-with-you-but-I’m-going-to-leave-your-reality-intact-while-I-disagree moments.

Now say “Yes.” It’s just one syllable. You know how it works. It might be tough to get out. Say it. Sayyyyy it.

Now, quickly, say “And…” Don’t say the dots. That’d be weird. Instead of them, say something else. Add to the scene. Direct it where you think it should go. But, again, remember that you aren’t the only person responsible for that direction. This is like one of those super post-modern plays where everyone is the director, and everyone is an actor, and it’s also a social justice training. Mostly that last one.

Become comfortable with the unplanned. The “Yes, And…” rule is one of the most important in improv because it leads the scene down paths that no individual actor could have planned — hence, a scene that is totally and completely improvised. That’s what makes improv so great. The same goes for facilitation. If you listen to the group, allow them to have agency and bring themselves into the experience, you’ll end up somewhere you might not have ever been, but everyone will have had a say in getting there.

It’s easy to shut someone down if they misspeak. It’s easy to say no. It’s easy to tell someone why they were wrong for thinking something, and to curb “bad” thinking with quick corrections. But we’re not here for easy. We’re not here for “no.”

It’s not easy to create a space where everyone truly feels safe, able to be themselves and share their experiences, and know that they won’t be made to feel shame for what they’re bringing to the table. But isn’t that really the point of all of this?

Yes, and that’s exactly what you’re going to do.