Solving Tough Problems with Yes/And Thinking

Last year, I was invited to an outer suburb outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to lead a group of librarians from facilities all over Washington County how to perform improv scenes, as well as how to apply those yes/and principles to resolve everyday conflicts and problems that often arise when dealing with the public in a resource to the community.

After a super fun morning of playing and getting the basics down while laughing hard, we shifted gears after lunch to move into effective conflict resolution strategies. Using some design thinking inspired exercises and breakout groups, we identified issues, and sometimes irritants, that libraries deal with on a constant basis.

They were broken up into different groups to list things that drove them crazy. A sanctioned gripe session with complete freedom to rant and rave about overly demanding board members who abuse powers, rude citizens, outdated resources, and issues that naturally come from being a government building that serves all of the public, including the homeless population, and others in need.

After giving them free reign to vent their frustrations, they were instructed to take one or two items from their ‘Gripe Lists’ and apply the yes-and principles we had learned earlier in the day to work out a brand new approach for dealing with frustrating issues.

The breakout team I sat in with had one particular problem that popped up: They had a gentleman – I don’t remember his name but we’ll call him Frank – who was homeless, didn’t have the best hygiene, and would spend all day at their facility. On several occassions, he would come into the library, go downstairs into the public restroom where he would plug in his electric pot into the outlet and cook soup or ramen for himself.

Beyond being gross, disgusting, and unsanitary to cook in a public restroom, it was also a safety issue that required library leadership to take action. Whenever he was caught, which was more than a few times, he’d create a scene, and they’d have to kick him out. They’d ban Frank from returning for a period of time. He’d, come back, eventually do it again and get caught again. It was a frustrating cycle.

After hearing about this and other issues, I instructed the breakout groups to try and Yes-And this problem to brainstorm a viable solution. A brilliant solution revealed itself in record time. Here’s basically how the exchange went:

Our facility has a small commercial kitchen.
AND, we could invite a chef from a local restaurant to come lead a cooking workshop.
AND, the food they cook for the workshop would ensure someone who is hungry might eat a good meal that day.
AND, someone from the class could learn a skill that might lead to employment and turn their life around.

You could literally feel the electricity in the air as an ongoing issue rapidly transformed into an incredible possibility in just three YES-AND’s. A potential solution that would not be very difficult to implement. Light bulbs were going off above heads because no one was shutting any idea down. There was genuine excitement as an obstacle became a possibility. All because people listened and agreed. The rest of the list items also went very well, but this was by far the most powerful and profound.

It turned an ongoing nuisance into a possibility filled with empathy and understanding for another human being. It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever witnessed in an improv setting.

Yes, and opens up possibilities. Yes-and listens and agrees. Yes and has each others’ backs.