“Yes, And”: Eliminate Argument Forever with These 2 Simple Words. ~ Melissa Lynn Lowenstein

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On a recent episode of This American Life there was a story about a new way to help people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.

It used to be that caregivers were advised to try to help the patient stay with themselves, to stay in their lives, identities and relationships as they actually happened. Post photos and reminders about people and dates and important events and places.

When the patient confuses the daughter for the sister or rises in the middle of the night convinced that it’s time to catch the bus to work, tell them, “No, no, this is your daughter; no, no, look, it’s the middle of the night, go back to bed.”

In response to these efforts, the patient often would become more confused or even enraged. Once-loving parents would spout hate at adult children who were giving their all just to ensure that they were safe and well cared for.

This new approach is based on a fundamental rule of improvisational theater. When you get up onstage with a fellow improvisor, you never say, “No” or argue with anything they assert in terms of the theatrical reality being created.

You always say, “Yes, and…”

“Yes, we’re in a subway station wearing clown suits, and your red nose is bigger than mine, and that’s no fair.”

“Yes, we’re Pegasus unicorn princesses flying over the Netherlands, and we’re delivering a very important message to the guy who runs this cafe right here.”

Clearly, this creates lots more dramatic possibility than if the second person refutes the first person’s asserted reality.

Taking this approach with the Alzheimer’s patient would mean talking to her as though you were, indeed, her sister, if that’s who she thinks you are right now. It would mean talking with her about the bus ride she’s planning to take. What’s happening at the job lately? Who will she be having lunch with today? It’s about taking a much looser approach to what’s real and what isn’t. It’s about entering the Alzheimer’s patient’s world, playing within it, and finding creative ways to get her back to bed or to become yourself again (not her sister) in her eyes, in the context of her world and her perceptions.

What a sacrifice, to surrender your own belief about what’s real to enter the playground of the sick person’s reality. What a beautiful gift.

And ultimately, based on reports of people who try this, it’s easier. It makes the burden of the disease lighter. It can even make living with an Alzheimer’s patient fun. The patient can have fun too. What a different thing than agonizing over one’s forgetfulness, over the loss of the identity carefully cultivated and clung to for a lifetime.

(Full disclosure: I have never been an Alzhemier’s caregiver, and I don’t even begin to suggest that I understand the challenges people face when in this position.)

I see any reason to adopt a “Yes, and…” attitude in relationships and in life in general to be a great gift—an invitation to settle into the essence of who we are, which is not only our memories, our particular relationships, or our ability to remember where we put something or what we came upstairs to get.

Who is the Alzheimer’s patient who has forgotten who she is? She’s still right here. She can see everything around her. She can see, taste, touch, smell. She can breathe one breath, then the next.

If those around her are able to hold that space—to let her shed who she has been to become luminously present, instead of participating in a panicked attempt to keep her in her old life—can she experience more peace in this transition?

I hope so. I know my own grandmother, who had severe dementia in her later years, was more serene then than she had ever been before. In her old life, she’d been anxious and fidgety, afraid and worried. Not in those later years. She’d sit and watch her grandchildren play with a peaceful smile on her face.

The workaday world requires us to hold on to so much.  It seems to demand that we establish our beliefs and then argue for them. But what if we were to say “Yes, and…” to everything?

A friend told me of a battle she’s in with her teenaged son, who has decided that religion is bullshit, that the God most imagine is a cruel and whimsical tyrant, and that anyone who believes in God must not be very intelligent. She wants to argue with him that some religious beliefs and traditions are really worthwhile. She wants to argue in favor of the possibility that God is real.

But what if she said, “Yes, and…” to his rants instead?

“Yes, the God in the Old Testament really liked to smite people for questioning His word. And the God in other traditions is different… much less like a cranky dictator!”

What if, when someone else disagreed with us or said something with which we disagreed, we reached out, found a point of connection with the other person’s world, and built from there?

We could skip that pointless exercise known as the argument—something that usually devolves to some form of the childhood “Yuh-huh!” “Nuh-uh!” back-and-forth, where positions are held and belief trumps connection.

“Yes, and…” makes for great improv theater, but maybe it could also transform human relationships. This is empathy in action. Art as life.



Relephant reads:

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Relephant bonus: Another (Buddhist) tip on how to make relationships last:

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Editor: Travis May

Photo: Pixabay

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anonymous Feb 7, 2016 11:43am

I suspect this might be true. I do improv with my 4-year-old niece all the time. She's so young and her speeches are whimsical and incoherent. Sometimes she would say the most bizarre things and nobody could understand her but I could tell she was trying to be a part of the conversation. I used to reproach her for not making any sense because I wanted to know what she really wanted to say. But then I noticed something; she talked to me less and less. I guess it was out of fear that if she said something wrong I would criticize and say no to her. Then I realized kids don't communicate the same way we do. Their interests, stories and how they tell them are different. Then I started going along with her when she started talking about something that didn't make sense and when I truly tried listen I actually understood the message she was trying to convey even though it's masked in fragments of seemingly unconnected ramblings. I enjoy our conversations a lot. She's at that age where poop and fart jokes crack her up a lot. Sometimes we'd spend an hour on and off discussing poop. OK, not a great example but we did have great laughs together and she's the only person in this world I could be this silly with. I love her a lot and lately I enjoy talking to her more than adult-age people.

anonymous Apr 22, 2015 2:10pm

Thanks for such an inspiring article. I work on theatre and I see myself doing that in several situations of my daily life. Since my daughter was a child I always went that way: the YES way! And accepted the challenge of letting go of my ideas, respecting her’s. Even now that she’s 19 it works. [The great thing is that now the understands the game and also plays it].

anonymous Mar 7, 2015 11:10am

This article will be a wonderful tool for my mother, who is struggling with the involuntary transfer from ‘partner’ to ‘carer’
Thank you for pointing out this program on This American Life and your caring piece.

anonymous Jan 20, 2015 2:36pm

So, well written. A point so well made. And such a worthwhile, rewarding perspective. When my father was dying he was having "hallucinations" about a Japanese woman who had "come to wait with him." He pointed this (imaginary?) woman out to me where she was standing just over the doorway to his room. I entered into the "hallucination" with him and, in great point of fact, found that I was relieved MYSELF that she was there! It was a lot easier for me to let him go – knowing that he wasn't going alone. This would never have happened had I not entered into his reality with him. Thank you for your words.

anonymous Jan 19, 2015 12:29am

Glad I’m on the right track 🙂

I AM an Alzheimer’s Caregiver…or as I like to call myself… a daughter… that cares for her 86 year young Mom with Stage 7 Alzheimer’s.

I’d never been a caregiver before, am not a mom, never had kids but when my Mom’s illness got worse and my 2 sisters were at their breaking point, I got a job transfer and moved back in with my parents. Back to the home and the room I grew up in.

I was petrified in the beginning since I only saw my parents once or twice a year. Mom didn’t even know who I was when I moved in November 2013. So I decided from the get go to live in her world. That this new episode of our relationship would be one of caring and kindness and that it was more important to be kind than to be right.

We’ve had many conversations that make no rhyme or reason, but she loves telling them and when she laughs and her sweet sweet spirit shines through, I want to make that moment last forever. Who cares if she’s calling me by my sister’s or her sister’s name? She’s happy and laughing and content.

anonymous Jan 18, 2015 11:45pm

Very relatable (not because I know someone with Alzheimer’s or I am a caregiver to someone who has Alzheimer’s) but rather because of the arguments inevitably involved in relationships. Thank you so much for this eye-opener. I have come across that idea in improv theatre, where it is funnier if the actors agree with each other however ridiculous the situation may become, but never have I imagined it would be so applicable to daily living. So thanks again for this. 🙂

anonymous Jan 18, 2015 10:27pm

I think you should volunteer at a daycare with Alzheimer's patients. Yes, it's sad but it's not that movie with Drew Barrymore where she wakes up everyday thinking its Groundhog Day. it's a lovely theory to have fun with it , but the reality is for most family members its a burden, anxiety, stress, sadness and loss! Of course we all try our best and laugh at the situational reality, but most of the time it's a never ending horror you never wanted for your loved one!

anonymous Jan 18, 2015 7:57pm

This is the best thing I've read on Elephant in months! "Empathy in action. Art as life." LOVE!

anonymous Jan 18, 2015 7:44pm

I took care of my father who had Alzheimer's until he passed away. One night after watching a show that was honoring our troops he told me "I can't go to bed yet, I told the captain I would get the uniforms back to him." For some reason that night (probably fearing he would stay up all night) I replied with "You know Dad you are tired from working all day, why don't you let me return the uniforms?" He replied "You would do that for me?" I said "I certainly would." That was the end of the uniform conversation and he slept all night. Finally I was able to resolve situations by not trying to reason or argue with a fragmented mind but to just go there with them and solve the problem. There were a few nights he got up and was taking the train home, so I would tell him that it was a long train ride and he must be tired, he went right back to bed.

anonymous Sep 12, 2014 6:12am

Super powerful! For those of you that want to learn more it and need a little help getting to “yes, and” (easy to say, harder to do!) I have two resources:

“The Validation Breakthrough: Simple Techniques for Communicating with People with Alzheimer’s-type Dementia”

by Naomi Feil

and Say What You See by Sandy Blackard –for using “yes, and” with children. (and yourself!) http://www.languageoflistening.com

anonymous Sep 9, 2014 7:56am

Lovely article. What captured me was the picture. It shows the eyes I often see with Alzheimer's: lost, childlike, searching and trusting. I don't think I have seen a photo that so distinctly captures a person with Alzheimer's. Thank you.

anonymous Sep 9, 2014 7:11am

Melissa, What a beautiful piece. I resonate with this method of care taking not only for those with dementia but (as you say), with everyone in our lives. "Yes, and…" Wouldn't it be wonderful if that is our opening line when anyone shares their feelings, thoughts or perspective?
The way someone interacts with and sees the world (regardless of a diseased mind or a healthy mind), is the way it exists for them – neither right or wrong. Who are we to ever say, no? Thank you. ~Rebecca

Lynn Thomson Feb 2, 2018 9:20am

I came across this idea for coping with Dementia from a book by Oliver James "Contented Dementia". I was primary carer for my Father - I feel this approach helped us both during the last years of life - he passed away only 11 months ago from vascular dementia. Its a cruel disease.

Erica Podjasek Feb 1, 2018 8:41am

I use this method with my husband who has severe PTSD and TBIs from serving in Iraq as a Marine. "We're under attack!" "Yes and we're in a safe place. No one is missing. Everyone is accounted for. Our position is fotified and help is coming." Then we go into grounding techniques. Before, when I went straight to the grounding techniques, he was often unable to participate or even comprehend them because I hadn't addressed the immediate danger. Now, he can do things like the 5,4,3,2,1 method much more quickly because I address the immediate concern first.

Augustus Schoen-Rene Jan 28, 2018 7:51pm

I cared for my mom for a bunch of years and learned this trick (luckily) in the second year. Painful at times, but ultimately good. It is not lying.

Joanna Smith Nov 25, 2017 2:04am

I came to this understanding quite a few years ago with my father who had Alzeheimer's. He passed away 7 years ago. To be able to play along with his experience, I had to accept that his memory was not going to get better. Although, that was painful and sad, once I accepted this it was much easier for both of us because I flowed with his experience and we were both more relaxed.

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Melissa Lowenstein

Melissa Lynn Lowenstein writes, mothers, dances, works for a non-profit, practices yoga, and goes outside as much as possible. Photo credit: Kathee Miller.