{ Rethinking Expertise, Part II } Reverse-Engineering with “Yes, And…”

The Doctor is... Insightful

The Doctor is… Insightful


In Part I of this post, I wrote about a habit I’ve recently discovered in myself. When someone makes a suggestion that doesn’t square with my own point of view, I reflexively dismiss it.

I call it the Yes, but… response.

I suppose a lot of people do this internally, but I do it out loud, and it’s strangely impulsive. When I examine the instant of Yes, but…, it seems like a tic, a brief unthinking blip in my otherwise rational state of being.

Becoming aware of this tendency has been eye-opening. As an educator, I take care never to dismiss a student’s idea. Regardless of how off-topic or simply incorrect the remark might be, I know that a dismissive response can lead a student to withdraw, get defensive, or shut down completely. I pay close attention to my students’ affect and body language so that I can track who is flagging and take positive steps to help them re-engage. By extension, perceiving and responding empathetically to others are skills I consider myself pretty good at. So recognizing my Yes, but… habit outside of the classroom — with friends, my daughter, my husband — has been a wake-up call.

Of course the tendency to assert one’s worldview to others — in order to dispute or correct things they have said — is not unique to me. It seems to thrive in people who place a value on knowing lots of things — ie, on expertise.

Though I’ve been somewhat aware of this tendency in myself, it’s seemed pretty innocent and benign until now. But as I’m beginning to understand, it often isn’t. The “expert mindset” can create challenges: missed opportunities and perspectives; broken connections with others; perhaps a narrower existence all around.

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Alan Alda is best known for playing one of the more memorable television roles of the 1970s and 80s: wisecracking surgeon Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H. But in a New York Times interview published this week, Alda discusses a less well-known pursuit of his: a life-long passion for science.

After M*A*S*H ended, he served as the host of PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers” for twelve years. On the show, he conducted hundreds of interviews with scientists, not as a laureled expert but as an enthusiastic amateur — in the true sense of the word, a lover of the very essence of scientific discovery:

Every experiment is a great story. Every scientist’s life is a heroic story. There’s an attempt to achieve something of value, there’s the thrill of knowing the unknown against obstacles, and the ultimate outcome is a great payoff — if it can be achieved. Now, this is drama!

Alda was consequently frustrated to find that some of science’s most accomplished practitioners were ill-equipped to convey to others — especially non-experts — the significance of their life’s work. And alienating their listeners with jargon had a serious practical downside for these experts: it hurt their ability to secure funding for their work.

Scientists often don’t speak to the rest of us the way they would if we were standing there full of curiosity. They sometimes spray information at us without making that contact that I think is crucial. If a scientist doesn’t have someone next to them, drawing them out, they can easily go into lecture mode.

After years of interviewing scientists by “drawing them out” with non-expert curiosity, Alda had a creative breakthrough bearing the hallmarks of integrative thinking: Thinking back to his roots as actor, he wondered if training in improvisation could make scientists better storytellers?

The answer is yes. Today, at Stonybrook University’s Center for Communicating Science, which Alda helped establish, he and others teach improvisation and other storytelling skills to scientists.

We don’t do comedy improvisation or making things up. The object is to put people through games and exercises that force them to make contact with the other player. You have to observe the other person, anticipate what they are going to do. You almost have to read their minds.

By teaching improv styles that require close attention to others, the Center’s workshops help scientists become more attuned to the people around them. Furthermore, it convinces them so deeply of the value of building connections with their audiences that many have started to incorporate personal anecdotes in their talks, despite previously believing them inappropriate in such an objective and academic context. 

In a related and equally fascinating article in Nature, Rachel Bernstein explains how the growing use of improv in the scientific community stems from the fundamentally collaborative and co-creative structure of improvisation itself. By insisting on a Yes, and… response model, improvisation eliminates the Yes, but… (and No, but…) tendency that is often deeply ingrained in scientists and other experts. 

Discussing the work of improvscience, a consulting group in Boston, Bernstein writes:

Researchers sometimes fall short in their communication with each other, despite the importance of collaboration. [Cell biologist and improvscience founder Racquell] Holmes thinks that improvisation offers a powerful tool to address this problem — through, for example, the ‘yes, and’ rule. This basic tenet of improvisation dictates that participants must say ‘yes’ to any verbal or physical cues that they receive and build on them, rather than trying to shut down a direction that makes them uncomfortable. The rule is important in a research context, in which a ‘no, but’ stance often dominates — such as when discussing a colleague’s results or critiquing a paper in a journal-club meeting.

From a scientific perspective, this critical approach may be appropriate and necessary. But taken too far, Holmes says, it can create a negative group dynamic and make some people hesitant to share ideas for fear of ridicule. And that, in turn, could slow research progress.

To illustrate this problem, in one of her games Holmes asks participants to get into pairs and work together to plan a party. First, members of each pair can respond to each other’s statements only by starting with ‘no, but’; they then repeat the exercise using the ‘yes, and’ rule. The ‘no, but’ approach made it “very difficult to have a meaningful conversation”, says Max Staller, a systems-biology graduate student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has participated in several improvscience workshops. In stark contrast, the ‘yes, and’ rule worked so well in planning the fictitious party that he now applies it to his research.

“I try to consciously think about, Is there a way to say ‘yes, and’,” Staller says. “I make a point in journal club of talking about what’s positive about the paper; sometimes we focus too much on the shortcomings, and take for granted the successes.”

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I’ll close by sharing two amazing conversations I had over the past few weeks that not only shed light on the problem of expertise but also strengthened my commitment to replace my constricting, unthinking Yes, but… with a more receptive and constructive Yes, and… 

In the first conversation, I was asking an executive coach and hands-on expert in emotional intelligence whom I deeply admire how best to support people who come to me in emotional tailspins.

“You and I are talkers,” she said. “But when someone is sharing something that is difficult, you have to sit back. You have to fight the impulse to jump in. When I was starting out, I used to remind myself of this with “W.A.I.T.,” as in W – A – I – T — or, Why Am I Talking?

In the second conversation, I was sharing the Yes, but… moment with my daughter, described in Part I of this post, with a child psychologist. She beautifully articulated the pitfalls of Yes, but… for parents.

“Kids need their parents to create safe and comfortable spaces for them to learn in. But adults know far too much. With kids, we actually need to know less. Sometimes it helps to act dumb. If you say you don’t know the answer to something, you won’t be able to tell her her guess is wrong. She won’t be afraid of being corrected. By knowing less, you create that safe and comfortable space for her to try out her ideas.”

So here to less “expertise” and more Yes, and…

Yes, and I’ll get more exercise walking those two-and-a-half blocks.
Yes, and do you have any art galleries you can recommend?
Yes, Amelie, let’s try that!

I’ll report on my progress in a future post.

Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts.

{ And speaking of improv, check out Elsa Fridman’s post yesterday on Charlie Todd’s TED talk on ImprovEverywhere — another example of improv’s power to instill a child’s [ non-expert ] mindset. }

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