The power of “Yes and…”

Jun 01, 2024 | EDR Blog

by Danya Rumore

Blackboard with text that says "Yes, and..." written in chalkIn recent blogs, I have explored the relationship between conflict and power. I have made the case that our greatest source of power when dealing with conflict is to intentionally choose how we respond to conflict, including through identifying and being ready to exercise our best option possible (or what I refer to as “the BOP”).

In this blog, I want to share another key source of power when dealing with conflict, one that I, like many other conflict resolution professionals, consider core to making conflict productive: “yes, and” thinking.

What is “yes, and” thinking and why does it matter?

“Yes, and” thinking is a mindset and way of speaking that reflects the simple but profound fact that the world is complex, and seemingly contradictory things can—and do—coexist. 

While this may seem obvious, the reality is, as I have discussed in previous blogs, we tend to default to seeing the world through a scarcity mindset and a zero-sum lens. This often leads us to assume that for one thing to be valid, the other has to be invalid, or that there isn’t enough room for multiple different things to be simultaneously possible. 

This zero-sum lens and scarcity mindset are epitomized in our tendency to think and speak in terms of “yes, but.” For example, we often say things such as:

  • Yes, I want to go to bed, but I want to stay up and watch a movie. 
  • Yes, I love my family, but I need some space from them.
  • Yes, I need to catch up on work, but I need to spend some quality time with my kids this week.
  • Yes, you want Indian food for dinner, but I want Thai food.

“Yes, and” thinking recognizes that it is not only possible but also entirely normal for people to have different needs and wants. Let me illustrate by reframing the above statements through a “yes, and” lens:

  • Yes, I want to go to bed AND I want to stay up and watch a movie. 
  • Yes, I need some space from my family AND I love them deeply. 
  • Yes, I need to catch up on work AND I need to spend some quality time with my kids this week.
  • Yes, you want Indian food for dinner AND I want Thai food.

Take a moment and think about how those two different framings—the “yes, but” and “yes, and” versions—of those statements feel. Also, think honestly about which reflects the way you tend to speak—and think—about situations in your life.

There is a saying that “everything that comes before ‘but’ doesn’t matter.” My experience and observation suggests this is typically true. For example, when we say something such as “I love my family, but I need some space from them,” the focus is on the fact that we need some space; the fact that we love our families feels like an afterthought or a reason for why we can’t take a little space. This can lead us to act unlovingly toward those we love—and/or it can lead us to feel guilty for needing a little space. Either response is not helpful and tends to lead to negative outcomes.

Similarly, if I say “Yes, you want Indian food for dinner, but I want Thai food,” I am effectively making it sound and feel like only my wants matter and, in so doing, effectively negating your desires.

When we think and speak in terms of “yes, and,” we acknowledge and embrace the fact that it is totally reasonable and understandable that we have different needs, wants, ideas or perspectives. For example, it is totally reasonable and understandable that another person and I might want different types of food for dinner. It is also entirely reasonable and understandable that you want a little space from your family, even if (and perhaps especially because) you love them deeply.

This is the first reason “yes, and” thinking is so powerful: It is all about accepting that “conflict just is,” which (as I have made clear in prior blogs) is a critical first step in learning how to make conflict productive.

The co-creative potential of “yes, and”

That is why “yes, and” is one of the key principles I try to teach in all of my conflict and collaboration courses and trainings. One of the ways I like to do this is through a simple exercise I learned from an applied improvisation workshop years ago (“yes, and” is also a core principle in improv). The exercise goes something like this:

I get people into groups of four and ask them to design a party together. In the first round, I ask one person in the group to start things off by saying, “Let’s throw a party!” Then I have them go around in a circle with each person adding something to the party plan, starting with “yes, but.” They keep doing this for about two minutes. It usually looks something like this:

  • Person 1: “Let’s throw a party!”
  • Person 2: “Yes, but it can’t be until next week, because we have finals due this week.”
  • Person 3: “Yes, but next week is graduation.”
  • Person 4: “Yes, but I don’t like parties.”
  • Person 1: “Yes, but we need to throw a party!”
  • Person 2: “Yes, but person four doesn’t like parties.”

And so on and so on.

You get the vibe, right? Let’s just say the “yes, but” parties tend to not be very inspiring.

In round two of the exercise, I ask groups to do the same thing. However, this time, they are asked to start each contribution with “yes, and” instead of “yes, but.” That second round tends to look something like this:

  • Person 1: “Let’s throw a party!”
  • Person 2: “Yes, and let’s have a unicorn theme!”
  • Person 3: “Yes, and let’s have amusement park rides!” 
  • Person 4: “Yes, and let’s have it professionally catered!”
  • Person 1: “Yes, and let’s get the department to pay for it!”
  • Person 2: Yes, and this is going to be the best party ever!”

Take a moment and compare the vibe of the “yes, and” party to the “yes, but” party. Pretty different, right?

When I do this exercise in my classes and professional trainings, the outcome is consistently the same. “Yes, but” is a stilted race to the bottom, whereas “yes, and” results in all sorts of creativity, laughter, and some really interesting parties. This is because “yes, but” is a block—it basically takes whatever the other person said, negates it, and redirects in a different direction. This is how we tend to approach conflict situations. We feel that we need to ignore or block what the other person needs or wants in order to get our needs and wants met.

“Yes, and” is quite the opposite. Instead of blocking, it takes what was said as a building block, embraces it, and adds to it. In other words, “yes, and” is inherently co-creative. 

That is why “yes, and” is a core principle in improvisation, which is all about co-creating scenes and activities.

It is also the second reason “yes, and” thinking is so powerful: It inherently pushes us to stop blocking and to instead co-create something new and better from different ideas, needs, wants, and perspectives. And that is what effective conflict resolution is all about.

A few important clarifications about “yes, and”

While the concept of “yes, and” is simple in theory, it can be challenging to put into practice in reality. Here are a few important clarifications to help you understand and apply this mindset and way of speaking:

  • The yes in “yes, and” does not mean agreeing to the other person’s requests or positions. It also does not mean you are agreeing to do anything or support anything. All it means is that you are validating that they feel a certain way or want a certain thing. In other words, it is not “Yes, you are right” or “Yes, you should get that.” Instead, it is just “Yes, I hear that is important to you” or “Yes, I hear you would like that thing.” Once you have validated that the other person wants a certain thing or feels a certain way, you can then build on that by expressing your feelings or needs in a way that adds to and does not diminish the other person’s concerns. This same concept applies if you are working through conflict within yourself.
  • Along a similar vein, “yes, and” doesn’t mean you support the way someone is behaving. In fact, it helps us address problematic behaviors without negating that the other person has legitimate concerns. In other words, it helps us separate the people from the problem. For example, we can think, “Yes, that person has legitimate concerns—and their behavior is unacceptable and needs to be addressed,” or we may need to say to someone, “Yes, I want to hear your concerns—and when you yell at me, it is hard for me to do so.”
  • In understanding “yes, and” it is also important to be clear that the words we use are important—and so is the intention and meaning behind those words (see what I did there? Yes, and!). For example, we can say “yes, and” but really be conveying “Yes, but.” Or we can say “yes, but” in a way that is building and not blocking. Whatever words you use, the goal is to embrace the fact that the world and situations are non-zero sum and to communicate in a way that makes space for complexity and the co-existence of divergent needs, wants, ideas, and perspectives.

“Yes, and” thinking will change you—and you will change the world

I have taught the skill of “yes, and” thinking to hundreds of students, colleagues, and friends, and I can say with confidence that people who embrace this idea and practice it—myself included—consistently find it life-changing in a very positive way. They commonly say it helps them approach life with an abundance (rather than scarcity) mindset and create opportunities from challenges. I encourage you to give it a try—and to be open to how it might change you and the world for the better.

Danya Rumore, a white woman with brown hair wearing a teal blouse and cardiganDanya Rumore, Ph.D., is the director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a research professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a clinical associate professor in the city and metropolitan planning department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the founder and a co-director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.


About the EDR blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) program, the EDR blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional blog posts at