We all know people whose first reaction is always, “No, but…” to every idea that comes their way, or every statement they hear.

“No, but…” is sometimes an attempt to prove they are smarter“No, but you don’t understand that our customers don’t care about the XYZ feature you are proposing we add to our product.”

“No, but…” is often used as a way to change the subject and avoid really answering what you have said. “No, but I think [unrelated issue] is also important.”

“No, but…” is sometimes a way of saying, “I’m not listening, and I have a better idea.”

As I’ve been working on my new book, Ditch the Pitch, and learning how the art of stage improvisation can teach us how to be better sales people, I’ve been struck by how these lessons go beyond sales.

In a recent issue of this newsletter called Get Rid of Your But, I talked about the importance of using stage improv’s “Yes, and…” principle in your selling. Stage improvisers can collaborate on stage to create a scene out of nothing by agreeing with everything that happens around them. If they react to something another actor says or does with “Yes, but” or “No, but,” the scene will stall and crash like a one-engine Cessna that just ran out of fuel.

Susan Messing is one of Chicago’s most popular stage improv actors, and a prominent teacher of improvisation at Chicago improv holy sites such as Second City, iO and the Annoyance Theater. I was interviewing Susan recently for Ditch the Pitch, and I asked her if she thought improv was natural for people. “Most people are ‘no-buts,'” Susan responded. “The first thing they need to learn is about simple agreement.”

Although I was interviewing Susan for a book on sales, it was clear that this “No, but” reflex is slowing down the business world just about everywhere, just about all the time.

When discussing improvisation, Susan loves to talk about “acknowledging and justifying what’s right in front of me.” She knows that one of the first things she needs to teach her students is the basic principle of agreeing with what is going on around you. You have to be willing to abandon any preconceived ideas of what you think should happen, and you need to be willing to leave certain things unsaid if they don’t fit into the situation going on around you. You need to perceive the world around you and say, “Yes.”

Imagine if every meeting you are in this week had an atmosphere of “Yes, and…” instead of an atmosphere of “No, but…” Imagine if people who are normally disagreeable were, instead, collaborative in their conversations. Imagine if all of your business conversations proceeded through incremental steps of agreement, instead of getting bogged down in a swamp of “nos” and “buts.”

Of course, there are times you need to say “No.” But there are ways to say “No” that don’t shut down dialogue. I am convinced that there is always something to say “Yes” to. It may just be, “Yes, I understand what you are saying,” or “Yes, we both agree that this is a challenging issue.”

I was working with the warehouse staff of a client company a few years ago, focused on the concept of “Yes, and…” This company provides outsourced network support for their customers’ data centers. The lives of the warehouse staff were a never-ending torrent of unreasonable requests from customers, sales people and field engineers to make replacement parts appear across the country in unreasonably short timeframes. These were people who spent a lot of their day saying, “No.”

We were using real-life scenarios from that very week, as I asked them to role-play these situations without using the word “No.” At first, they said it would be impossible, and a few of them were visibly irritated with me. But, as I knew they would, they eventually succeeded in turning every “No, but…” into a “Yes, and…” They didn’t overpromise deliveries; they just found different ways to communicate their information.

Try it yourself. See if you can go this entire week without saying, “No, but…” Agree with the world around you, and you just might find that it is willing to agree with you in return.

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