Value Added Communication (VAC)
by Jeff Zeig
Consider the following hypothetical dialogue:
Person A: We are here.
Person B: Yes, but what good is that?
Person A: Well, what good is anything?
Person B: Yeah, why should we expect anything good?
Person A: There really isn’t any reason to expect anything good.
Person B: Nothing good has happened in a long time.
Person A: Yes, but there is no reason to expect that anything good is going to happen now.
Person B: And anyway, not many good things happen in any given year.
Obviously, this dialogue spirals downward, and it can continue to do so endlessly. Consider what feelings will remain with the participants. They can’t be positive. Let’s call this pattern: Yes-But communication. Those who senselessly and habitually engage in this type of dialogue can join the Fraternal Order of Victims of Life. Yes-But communication is often stultifying. Unfortunately, the human brain is a mismatch detector. It is designed to notice what is wrong in any given situation. In a room full of tall people, you will undoubtedly notice the one short person. In a place where most objects are stationary, you will certainly notice the object that is moving. Perhaps this can be attributed to the days of the caveman when survival could be promoted by noticing, remembering, and avoiding aberrations that could be dangerous.
There are various configurations of communication that spirals downward. When I was studying to be a psychotherapist, one of my teachers said that most communication is SAD JAN: Sullen Silence, Advice, Deceit, Judgment, Attack, and Negativity. Research has possibly supported his theory. In one study, in which a college women’s dormitory was bugged in order to determine the communication patterns of “normal” female college students, statements made included: “Oh, she is a bitch.” “That teacher is a bastard.” “The weather is terrible.” These conversations could be tabbed: Ain’t It Awful. Ain’t It Awful is considered a “game” in transactional analysis — a theory of personality developed by the renowned psychiatrist, Eric Berne. Games are psychological patterns that are repetitively played and designed to end in a chronic bad feeling, such as depression, anger, or hurt. Berne had a colloquial term for these chronic bad feelings; he called them “rackets.” Collect enough incidents of your rackety feelings and you will most likely develop an existential position of “I’m not okay.” Subsequently, a life script can be created around a concomitant identity, e.g., “I am a loser.”
Berne also categorized ways of structuring time, such as withdrawal, rituals, activities, games, and intimacy. However, he was quite pessimistic about intimacy, stating that people were lucky if they spent five minutes a day in intimacy. A pastime is another way of structuring time. Pastimes are minor and generally harmless patterns played out often enough to literally “pass the time.” They appear in basic patterns of small talk, where people complain about the weather, politics, or bad luck. Ain’t It Awful could be a pastime, as well as a game. And pastimes don’t have to be negative spirals; if used properly, they can be adaptive. People who are dating one another may engage in the pastime, even one with a negative spiral, to ascertain whether or not they want to proceed into more intimate dialogue, which would make them more vulnerable.
Now that we understand a downward spiral, let’s examine a positive spiral. Consider the following hypothetical dialogue:
Person A: We are here.
Person B: Yeah, and we can get to know each other.
Person A: And, we can see what we can learn.
Person B: We can see what we have in common
Person A: Yeah, and there are things that we can learn from each other.
Person B: So let’s spend more time together!
The fulcrum of this type of communication can be summarized as, “Yeah and…” By using or implying that phrase, communication moves in an upward spiral, and participants will be left with positive feelings.
Yeah-And communication is a skill set that is taught in fundamental courses in improvisation where it is a necessity for building spontaneous humor. However, Yeah-And communication can be used in everyday life—and in any relationship.
I often practice couples’ therapy and common communication patterns that I encounter are: Ain’t It Awful and Yes-But. If couples engaged in communication that led to an upward spiral such as Yeah-And, they could avoid couples’ therapy and save money and time. When Yeah-And communication is used in any relationship, the benefits accrue quickly.
Yeah-And is one form of Value Added Communication (VAC). VAC is like putting money in the bank: principle is returned with interest. Study your circle of friends and associates and notice those who are good at VAC. Learn their patterns and experiment with making them yours.
Time spent in developing reflexive patterns of Yeah-And communication and VAC foster goodwill and intimacy. Yeah, and you can enjoy practicing them today!
Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D.
The Milton Erickson Foundation
2632 E. Thomas Road, #200
Phoenix, Arizona 85016-8220