How to Listen to New Ideas

Amy Poehler may have said it best.

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According to actress and comedian Amy Poehler, one of the key lessons of improvisational comedy is the term “Yes, And.” The idea is that the actor accepts whatever comes at him and instead of fighting it, in effect, says “yes” to it. The key, though, is the “and” part, which means you have to come back with something of value.

If you have watched improv, you already know how this works.

This really works in most business settings, too. I listened to a very high-level business coach once talk to his executive client. His side of the conversation went something like this:

“I see.”

“Good.”

“I see.”

“That’s good.”

“Maybe next time you can say AND instead of BUT.”

“OK, let’s talk next week.”

That was it, I kid you not. He told me that if most executives simply could say “Yes, and,” they would not need to pay his exhorbitant coaching fees. (Note to coaches: Yes, I know there is more to it than that.)

I thought about this recently when I met with someone who is very good at listening to new ideas. In fact, I go to him often just for his feedback. It is very much a skill to know how to listen to new ideas. Here is what I appreciate:

1. He always has time. In fact, his attitude is one of anticipation for my ideas. It’s as though hearing my ideas—however silly, stupid or worthless—is the most important thing in his day. It’s not really, but I feel that way.

2. He mirrors me. If I am animated about my idea, so is he. If I am logical and thoughtful, so is he. This visual positive feedback is the opposite of the bucket of cold water that most of us figuratively throw on someone’s new idea, with our scowls and crossed arms.

3. He never, ever says my idea won’t work. He is never negative. In fact, I feel like a high school kid with his favorite teacher, the one we remember at the reunions. I feel smarter, not dumber.

4. He is additive. He adds to the idea. He says “and then..,” rather than “but this…” or “I don’t think… .”

5. He knows it’s not just the idea, it’s me, too. This is key—he is very good at making me feel special for having a new idea, and he is very complimentary and encouraging. He understands the first immutable law of compliments: that it does not matter if it is earned or not, we still love hearing it.

G.L. Hoffman is a serial entrepreneuer and venture investor/operator/incubator/mentor. Two of his companies have traveled the entire success path from the garage to IPO. Currently, he is chairman of JobDig , and his blog can be found at WhatWouldDadSay.com or at JobDig.com.

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