"Yes, And...": How Mary's Yes & Improv Can Make You a Better Boss

“Our Lady listens attentively to what God wants, ponders what she doesn't fully understand, and asks about what she doesn't know. Then she gives herself completely to doing the divine will: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word.’” Saint Josemaria Escriva

“Yes, and…” is an improvisation technique comedians use to keep a scene going. David Alger, founder of an improv theater in San Francisco, writes that it is his first rule of improv: “For a story to be built, whether it is short form or long form, the players have to agree to the basic situation and set-up. The who, what, and where have to be developed for a scene to work.” So, for example:

Actor 1: You sure took a long time getting here. Did you get lost on the way?

Actor 2: Yes, and I had to stop twice to get directions.

Actor 1: You asked for directions? You don’t have GPS? What is this, 2000?

Actor 2: Yes, and don’t you love my new crop top?

Corny as it sounds, “Yes, and” has become a popular tool in business for encouraging creativity and communication. (After all, if Actor 2 had said “Nope,” it would have ended the conversation pretty quickly.) The theory is that when someone comes up with an idea, by saying “yes, and,” you can consider its potential before dismissing it immediately. While, eventually, you may need to say “no,” by saying “yes, and,” you at least have a conversation first.

The most momentous “yes, and” in history was Mary’s fiat – when she told the angel Gabriel that she accepted God’s will for her. The rest, of course, is salvation history – and leaders can learn a great deal from Mary’s openness. In fact, her dialogue with Gabriel is a template we can follow when communicating with our employees. As St. Josemaría Escriva pointed out, Mary followed three steps in listening to Gabriel and making a decision about God’s request (because, of course, she had human free will and could have said no):

1. She listened

In the words of Steven Covey, Mary “listened to understand” rather than “listening to reply.” If your plan when talking to someone is to respond with a “yes, and,” then when the other person is talking, all you have to do is listen to understand what they are saying instead of formulating your response while they’re talking.

Our Catholic faith demands that we respect the dignity of each unique human person, perhaps especially when they are our employees. The next time one of your employees comes to your office, whether it’s to ask a simple question about a project or to have a difficult conversation about their job (dis)satisfaction, close your laptop, turn over your cell phone, and close the door if you have to. Look them in the eyes, listen to what they say, and don’t plan your response until they’re finished talking.

2. She thought

According to St. Luke, when Gabriel greeted Mary, “she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Indeed, Luke’s Gospel often tells us how thoughtful Mary was. She pondered. She kept things in her heart and then thought about those things often. Mary did not rush into decisions. A “yes, and” approach encourages a deliberately drawn-out conversation. Greater thought leads to greater understanding and, ultimately, better relationships and better decisions.

Our instinct is not to like pauses in conversation. In fact, we usually describe such pauses as awkward silence. But sometimes, silence is good. If you need to take a moment to think about what you just heard, do it. If you need more time before you respond, ask for it.

3. She asked questions

When Gabriel tells Mary she is going to have a son, she asks what educators like to call a clarifying question: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” Rather than rejecting Gabriel’s announcement as absurd, she asks him for more information. By responding with a “yes, and,” she receives more insight. Doing the same with your employees will promote mutual respect and better decisions.

If you need to understand more about what your employee is requesting or telling you, ask questions:

  • “Why do you think this problem is happening?”

  • “What support can I give you to help you accomplish this goal?”

  • “Have you asked anyone else for help with this challenge? What was the outcome?”

  • “What would success look like for you?”

Asking clarifying questions of your employees will not only help you understand what’s going on. It will also demonstrate to them that you care about what they’re saying and how you can help.

“Yes, and” is not a hard-and-fast rule for speaking. You don’t have to respond with every statement or question an employee says with “yes, and.” What “yes, and” is, is an approach to having a conversation that reminds you to be open, to listen, and to respond thoughtfully.

Taryn Oesch, managing editor of Catholic Women in Business and owner of Everyday Roses Editorial, LLC, is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and speaks for Catholic women and the organizations that serve them. Her role models are all named Teresa, and she keeps discovering new ways they influence her work and her life. When not writing or editing, Taryn is typically reading Jane Austen, drinking Earl Grey, and spending time with family and friends. She is a contributing writer and assistant editor at FemCatholic.com and an active member of the Raleigh Catholic Young Adults, where she leads a women’s Bible study and plays the piano and flute for monthly Holy Hours. You can follow Taryn on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, and on her blog Everyday Roses.