I once served on a committee led by a powerful woman. She had strong views, but what I remember most is that whenever I spoke, she nodded her head vigorously and affirmatively. Over time, I learned that her nodding didn’t mean she necessarily agreed with me. Even so, I always sensed that she was listening closely and carefully considering what I had to say.
Today I make my living in part by speaking to large groups. Instinctively, I find myself scanning the audience for beacons of affirmation — people whose positive body language makes me feel valued and energized. If I happen to alight on someone shaking his head negatively or looking distracted or bored, I feel a lurch in my stomach and a surge of defensiveness.
As I write this column, my two dogs have been lying quietly near my desk. I just conducted a little experiment with them. First, I said a single word – “Yes” – with unbridled enthusiasm. The dogs leapt to their feet, their tails wagging, and raced over to me. Next I said “No,” firmly. Both dogs looked down and slunk away. I felt as bad as they did.
“No” is first and foremost a fear response, most useful in situations of genuine danger. It’s something you say instinctively and protectively to a 3-year-old when he’s about to pull a lamp off a table and onto himself or to a 15-year-old who announces she’s planning to take up cliff jumping.
In situations like those, the instinct to say “no” serves us well. The psychologist Roy Baumeister refers to this phenomenon as “bad is stronger than good.” In a paper with the same title, he writes, “Organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones.”
There is a difference, however, between surviving and thriving. Because our survival is no longer under constant threat, many more of us have the opportunity to focus on thriving. The problem with “no” as a starting place is that it polarizes, prompts defensiveness and shuts down innovation, collaboration and connection.
The psychologist and researcher John Gottman has famously found that when the ratio of positive to negative interactions in a marriage falls below five to one, divorce is far more likely. Negativity, in short, can be potent poison, and its effects are long lasting and often pernicious.
By contrast, starting with “yes” energizes, creates safety and trust and fuels creativity. I learned this viscerally during an improvisation workshop, run by the Magnet Theater, at a recent company offsite meeting. One of the basic tenets of improvisational comedy, it turns out, is to start with “yes” — and even more specifically with “yes and.” When you work with someone in a scene, your challenge is to resist disputing, challenging, or negating whatever your fellow actor says, and instead embrace, work with and build on it.
What I realized quickly was how good it felt to say “Yes and,” and how much more smoothly it made the scene move forward. So why does “no” so frequently remain the default response in the workplace?
Partly, it’s a primitive survival-of-the-fittest instinct. If someone else suggests an idea and your response is an affirming “Yes,” or even “Yes and,” then she may get credit and you may not. But defending our own value by diminishing the value of others eventually ends up costing us — and not just because it antagonizes others.
Not long ago, while working with a team of senior executives, I introduced an exercise that fell outside their expertise and comfort zone. I knew from experience that all of them were fully capable of mastering the task if they were simply willing to look at the problem in front of them in a fresh way.
Many of them did exactly that, but several fell short. When they finished, I suggested to one of those who struggled that I could help him complete the exercise successfully. His answer was a flat “no.” I’m pretty persuasive, but I could not convince him to give my approach a try.
“I just can’t do that,” he told me. “Never could, never will.”
When “no” becomes a dominant voice in our heads, it acts like an autoimmune disease, shutting down our own possibilities.
When a leader starts with “no,” he shuts down others. At an emotional level, the word “no” translates as “I don’t value what you’re saying,” and “I don’t trust you.” Fear, anger or resignation set in, all of which kill creativity, increase distrust and discourage engagement.
Like any strengths, receptivity and positivity — the expressions of “starting with yes” — eventually become liabilities if they are overused. They can turn into indulgence and lack of standards. But starting with yes doesn’t necessarily mean ending with yes, as I learned in that committee many years ago.
Starting with yes signals interest and respect. Ever since our company offsite meeting, I’ve made it a regular practice in meetings to seek opportunities to say yes. I don’t always agree with everything I’m hearing, but I can almost always embrace some aspect of an idea being presented and build on that.
The unmistakable and welcome consequence is that it feels as if we’re all in it together. The intelligence of the group invariably exceeds the sum of its parts.
Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of The Energy Project and the author, most recently, of “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.” Twitter: @tonyschwartz
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