06 August 2013

The Rule of Yes

Play and dialectic go hand-in-hand. The first rule of all improvisation is the Rule of Yes. One person initiates an interaction with a word or gesture while the other person accepts (says yes to) what their partner has said or done.

A bit of dialogue, for example…

Me: I just got a new puppy.

You: (fill in your Yes response. Accept what is said and add to it. Such as…”That’s wonderful! Is it a boy or a girl?” This would prompt me to respond in turn and so on.)

Or, interactions can begin with something as small as a simple gesture. Words are not even needed to get the interaction going. For example…

Martha enters. (Notice: the interaction has already begun with a simple entrance. Simply “showing up” can be powerful.)

Sandra offers her a seat. (Notice: the interaction continues with even the smallest of gestures.)

Martha takes the seat.

Sandra: How are you today?

Martha: (you supply the response. Think Yes, even if you say something like…”Not good.”)

In the first example, the statement asks for a response.  In the second example, the offer to have a seat invites conversation.

This is the essence of play. It is spontaneous, inviting and open to invitation, surprising and unpredictable. Now, you may not have been surprised by the above interactions but that is only because I suggested one way of playing out the scene.

Another way of playing out the first scene could be…

Me: I just got a new puppy.

You: I did, too, but my neighbor ran over it with his car. She died.

That would appear a little more surprising, would it not? Nevertheless, the first way of playing out the scene is just as surprising, even if it seems less so.

The second scenario could be played out this way:

Martha enters. Sandra offers her a seat.

Martha: I don’t feel like sitting, actually. I’ve been sitting all day.

Sandra: Really? What have you been doing?

Martha: (you provide the response. Surprise us.)

In both cases, the “yes” comes in the form of “accepting” what was offered by adding something to it. Even though Martha says “I don’t feel like sitting” her statement turns out to be a “yes” statement because she adds to it: “I’ve been sitting all day.”  

This prompts our curiosity: What has she been doing? We want to find out.


“But play does not always involve two or more people,” someone might say.

Yes, it does—even when you are playing by yourself. There is an internal dialectic going on.

This piece of writing is an example. There are no literal conversation partners for me as I write this, but one or two other people are supplied by my imagination.

When my daughter was younger, she played this way with her stuffed animals. Sometimes I would listen to her down the hall, playing by herself, carrying on all kinds of dialogue between Lamby and Max.

What interests me most about those interactions is that my daughter did not have to be taught The Rule of Yes—she simply followed it. How refreshing!


How do you do with this? Do you find yourself mostly living according to the Rule of Yes or do you at times live more according to No? Think of some different relationships you have. How do they vary from one to the other? More Yes or more No?

In some future posts about this, we’ll consider how sometimes we can say Yes but it feels like No to the other person. In turn, a No can be spoken in the spirit of Yes. Statements can feel like questions and questions are sometimes used as statements. In either case…

Play is open. Play is Yes, even when we say no.

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