This is a guest post by Anh Han, originally posted on his blog. The write up was part of a workshop he led.

Setting the Scene

As more people embrace Human-Centred Design, more of us find the need to quickly connect with others to advance our projects.

Two key skills to build as someone solving user problems are:

  • establishing rapport with a stranger
  • eliciting stories.

These in turn lead to better user-centred solutions.

Improvisation is a skill and art, which is very relevant in this context. This workshop had the objective of providing participants with a high-level overview of some key improv rules, and showcasing how this mindset can be leveraged to build rapid rapport with other people.

The workshop was a mix of improv rules, improv games, and reflections on how these lessons can be applied to gain empathy and context. The better you relate, the richer your insights.


Rule #1: YES, AND

yes and improv for empathy


Progression: (1) No (2) Yes, But (3) Yes, And

“Yes, and” is arguably the most famous rule of improv.

  • YES = agreeing with the reality in front of you
  • AND = adding a little bit more to make things richer

Together, they’re a powerful tool to:

  1. Demonstrate that the other party has been heard
  2. Help move towards a common goal

In improv, we use “yes, and” to build the story together. “Yes, and” moves things forward. “Yes, and” is about seeing what offers are being presented, and running with it.

For customer discovery, “yes, and” helps us keep the conversation going. It helps us dig deeper and expose the stories that really matter.

We played a pair game where a party had to be planned, and explored how simple responses — (1) No (2) Yes, But (3) Yes, And — changed the overall experience for both party planner and the response.

It’s so easy to say no. No. NOOOOOOOOOO. It just rolls off the tongue. It’s often our default answer, but what does it bring? How does it feel when you have a great idea, you tell someone, and then they say “no”? Frustration? Anger? Disappointment?

When we say no to others, we close down channels of communication.

If your user says something, and the first thing you do is negate their comment, you break trust. Without trust, there is no rapport, and without this, no insight. Saying “no” shows that you haven’t realy heard what the other person is trying to say.

“Yes, But” is really a no. It’s still a blocker. You think you’re being nice but really, you’re not listening.

Rather, you’re exerting your own reality on the other person. The more we reject, the less open and willing people are to sharing their ideas with you. Once this happens, collaboration and communication breaks down.

Saying “yes, and” totally changes the dynamic.

“Yes, And” shows that you’ve really been listening to what the other person has been saying, and that you find it valuable. “Yes, and” helps you move away from conflict and build something together towards a common goal.

Key Takeaways

  1. Be very mindful of how easy it is to say no.
  2. “Yes, but” is a disguised no
  3. “Yes, and” helps people feel heard and valued. This is a good place to start collaborating, instead of competing.



Improv is a collaborative effort. Individuals step up, often with no ideas, and be vulnerable in front of the audience. They trust that the other team members have “got their back”. It allows the vulnerability to enable great stories to be told.

The more we focus on making others look good, the better the fruits of our collective effort. Making others look good means seeing everything they do as a gift, and setting up others to succeed.

When interviewing customers, or working with colleagues, great things happen when we believe that people are interesting, and we help them achieve what they want to achieve.

Key Takeaways

  1. Focus on the other person, and not on you. Kill the ego.
  2. Listen to understand, not as a means to wait for your turn to speak.
  3. Ask “how can I help the other person”, vs “what’s in it for me”


feeling improv for empathy


Progression: (1) Mirror (2) Act the Feeling (3) Guess the Feeling

As much as we hate to admit it, we are not rational beings. The choices we make are a reflection of how we see the world, and how the world makes us feel.

Great improv is based around great relationships. As a player, you should always ask “how do I feel about the other character and the choices that have been made?”.

Understanding feelings help us better understand why certain moves were made, and thus lets you make the most appropriate choice to progress the scene.

Our feelings and physical state are deeply connected — how we feel changes how we act; how we act changes how we feel.

To get the best insights, we need to build rapport with another person. People who have rapport unconsciously mirror body language, and we can use this insight to build rapid rapport with strangers.

By mirroring both the content of their message and the body language used, we enable the other person to feel heard and valued. With a deeper connection, the other person feels a sense of “psychological safety” that allows them to express themselves without fear of judgement.

By labelling the feelings you see, you ask for permission to respectfully ask the other person to share more. Even if the label is wrong, you’ll find that people will volunteer more insights to let you better understand where they are at.

Key Takeaways

  1. Establish rapport by mirroring body language.
  2. We all have an intuitive grasp of how other people are feeling. Use this information as a way to better understand where they are at. Look for times when what they say is incongruent with what their body language is saying.
  3. Labelling an emotion helps move things forward. If you are correct, you can dive deeper and say “tell me more”. If you are wrong, the other person will correct you, and again, you can say “tell me more”.

Closing Thoughts

improv for empathy anh han

Improv is a great skill set to help you develop deep empathy for other people. “Yes, and-ing”, “making your partner look good” and, “finding the feeling” will help you rapidly build rapport and psychological safety to allows the best insights to surface.

The better you empathise and the more you understand context, the better you will be at “meeting people where they are”. Only once you do this can you create solutions that help move things forward.

Remember, Improv is a mindset, not a set of rules.

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