An educator I was media training said that a basic skill that should be taught in all schools is improvisational communications. He said we face the need to improvise responses to situations in all aspects of our lives – from work to home to the community. I agree.

An aspect of improvisation in the theatre that is also found in our daily lives is the concept of ‘blocking’ – the rejection of a suggestion that is ‘offered’ by another party.

For several years now my son, Thomas D’Arcy, has studied and performed improvisation as part of his performance training. “There is nothing more frustrating – well, except impossible suggestions from the audience – than being on stage and having one of the actors block your offer,” he says. “It can stop the story and then you have to work that much harder to get around it and keep the action going.”

We see blocking at work perhaps more than we realize. I was in a business meeting not long ago when one of the participants brought forward a creative suggestion to address a problem. It was not ‘out-of-the-box’ to me, but it was to some of the others at the table. One in particular immediately blocked the suggestion by attacking it. Some others joined in support of the attack. I was immediately reminded of the contemporary meeting rule that all ideas were to be respected. And that’s what I said. Clearly, while the specifics of the suggestion may not have been accepted the direction was worth exploring. Reined in, the attackers then let the suggestion stand and we were able to move on constructively.

The immediacy of the rejection – the “block” in this meeting – caught me and I went back to see what improvisation expert, teacher and author Keith Johnstone had to say about blocking.

“When I meet a new group of students they will usually be ‘naysayers’”, observes Johnstone.“The motto of scared improvisers is ‘when in doubt, say NO.’ We use this in life as a way of blocking action. Then we go to the theatre, and at all points where we would say ‘No’ in life, we want to see the actors yield, and say ‘Yes’. Then the action we would suppress if it happened in life begins to develop on stage.


“In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action. All the improvisation teacher has to do is to reverse this skill and he creates very ‘gifted’ improvisers. Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action.”

Think about meetings you have been at like the one I described earlier. Creativity, new ideas, action were probably stifled. Think about what happens when a participant is blocked:

1.      New ideas are rejected;

2.      Enthusiasm is dulled; and

3.      Sometimes, we are forced to accept an inappropriate idea because the block of this idea is rejected by the offering party and, if that party has the power, it can impose their idea to get around the block.

I’ve held for a while now that there are no rights and wrongs, only options, each with their advantages and disadvantages. It allows me to stifle my ‘naysayer’ nature and consider all ideas. It is my structure for improvising a response to the ideas of others and it has worked in that it has kept the action moving.

Another way to overcome the ‘naysayer’ or blocking mentality is to release the ‘yeasayer’ in all of us. There are many techniques for this but let’s talk first about how it works, psychologically.

Johnstone quotes extensively from Arthur Couch and Kenneth Kenison on this: “Yeasayers seem to be ‘id-dominated’ personalities, with little concern about or positive evaluation of an integrated control of their impulses. They say they express themselves freely and quickly. Their ‘psychological inertia’ is very low, that is, very few secondary processes intervene as a screen between underlying wish and overt behavioural response. The yeasayers desire and actively search for emotional excitement in their environment. Novelty, movement, change, adventure – these provide the external stimuli for their emotionalism. They see the world as a stage where the main theme is ‘acting out’ libidinal desires. In the same way, they seek and respond quickly to internal stimuli: their inner impulses are allowed ready expression…the yeasayer’s general readiness to respond affirmatively or yield willingly to both outer and inner forces demanding expression.

“The ‘disagreeing’ naysayers have the opposite orientation.”

So, it sounds like the yeasayers have fewer inhibitions than the naysayers. Therefore, a sure way to loosen up the creativity juices is to serve a lot of alcohol to the participants. Where that is inappropriate, any exercises, games, etc. that let people get into a ‘yeasayer’ mood might be appropriate. At minimum, participants should be asked to agree to a yeasayer approach to the discussion. The more individual and public the agreement the more chance that each person will act consistently with their public commitment to act like a yeasayer for the discussion. (If they balk at making a public commitment, remind them that the alternative is to go through inhibition-loosening exercises.)

In improvisational training, turning students into yeasayers involves trying to get them to say the first thing that comes into their head without the idea police in their brains screening the thought or trying to replace it with a more brilliant one.

Johnstone says: “Suppose Mozart had tried to be original? It would have been like a man at the North Pole trying to walk north, and this is true of all of the rest of us. Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”

Improvisation has a lot to offer us in improving our daily communications. We see how blocking stops the action in the story in improvisational theatre just as it does in our business and other interactions.


1.      IMPRO Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, Published by Routledge/Theatre Arts Books, N.Y. Copyright 1979 Chapter on Spontaneity pp 75-108

2.      This term and its opposite, ‘yeasayers’, come from a paper by Arthur Couch and Kenneth Kenison. ‘Yeasayers and Naysayers’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 160, No.2, 1960. Found in the footnotes to Johnstone’s chapter on Spontaneity in IMPRO.

3.      ‘Yeasayers and Naysayers’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 160, No.2, 1960. Found in the footnotes to Johnstone’s chapter on Spontaneity in IMPRO.

Copyright 2005,2008


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