How Psychotherapy is Like Improv Comedy
By David Sternberg, LICSW
There's a rule of thumb in improvisational comedy called "yes, and..." It means that a participant should accept what another participant has stated and then expand on that line of thinking. By saying "yes", the participant has accepted the reality of his improv partners and begun the collaborative process.
So, what does any of this have to do with psychotherapy?
In my 16 years of providing therapy, I've noticed there are two basic types of clients: those who say "yes" to my suggestions, directions or homework assignments and those who say "yes, but".
It's nearly a guarantee that those who say "yes" in therapy make significantly more progress -- sometimes life-changing -- and achieve the kind of changes they were hoping for versus those who say "yes, but".
It can be argued that saying "yes, but" is the exact opposite of improv comedy participants who say "yes, and..." One impedes progress; the other not only encourages progress but actively speeds it up.
Over the years this schism between "yes" and "yes, but" has become such a noticeable trend that I now mention it in the initial session to clients. I do this for two reasons -- to convey the idea that therapy is very much a collaborative process and to set a framework for change/growth.
Saying "yes" implies a couple of things: readiness to change; trust in me and the therapeutic process; and a desire to take some action, even if it means trying something new and feeling uncomfortable.
On the other hand, those clients who say "yes, but" either don't really want to change; aren't ready to change, or are too scared to change.
So, they put obstacles in their way - and mine -- by saying things like "Yes, that sounds like a good idea but I've tried that before" or "Yes, I wanted to do it but I forgot" or "Yes, it was on my list but I didn't have the time." (Some less obvious versions of "yes, but": arriving late for session; not showing up for session, or cancelling after a few sessions.)
I could go on but you get the idea. I see statements like these for what they are: defenses.
If I notice continued "yes, but" statements, I'll say "So, what
you willing to change?" Sometimes that causes a shift, partially because it highlights the "but" in the "yes, but" comment.
To summarize, while you don't have to say "yes, and" in psychotherapy, as they do in the improv world, do yourself a favor and avoid the "yes, but" approach. You'll likely see a world of difference.