An Underlying Lesson from Ellen and W

Here's something we can all learn from an unexpected friendship

Oct 22, 2019
Management

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Maryland Smith’s Tricia Homer has been thinking a lot lately about the iceberg meme, which uses the visible portion above water to represent just a fraction of the whole story. “Ellen and W stand on that tip,” she says.

Television host Ellen Degeneres attempted to share what lies under the surface after a Sunday night football game in Dallas, when the “twitterverse” found her hanging out in a luxury suite with former President George W. Bush.

A snapshot of the incident showed how deep the iceberg goes, inspiring a swell of blog posts, articles and endless online comments, she says. More than a week later, the incident was still on people’s minds, even becoming a topic at the Democratic presidential debate. Why?

“The story resonates with me as a communication coach and dialogue facilitator,” says Homer, director of business communication and a lecturer in the Master's Programs at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “One thing that I have learned from my work as a dialogue facilitator and theater practitioner is this story is an opportunity to engage in the practice of ‘Yes, and…’”

The idea of “Yes, and…” has its roots in improv theater. Homer describes it as “a belief, a perspective and a practice.” Here’s how it works.

“In improv, if we are in a scene, and I say ‘I’m waiting on a bus stop,’ my scene partner would respond with something like, ‘Yes, and… we’re waiting for the bus.’ It’s about accepting your scene partner’s choice and building on that choice to move the scene forward. If my partner said, ‘...and I’m blow drying my hair,’ this would not move the scene forward. It would interrupt the picture that’s being painted.”

Homer applies the premise to the story of Degeneres and Bush. “We should be kind to each other,” she says, adding, ‘Yes, and… W’s presidency left a legacy of war and anti-LGBT policy, which continues to reverberate today.’

“‘Yes, and… Ellen sat and talked with him and connected with him, one human being to another.’

“‘Yes, and… for her that is practicing kindness.’”

It’s how “Yes, and” works, she says. And it’s how connecting works, as well.

“Loving people who do not look like you or think like you is never easy. The human brain is hard-wired to see sameness as safety. But the challenge increases when you are semi-anonymous, hiding behind a keyboard,” she says. “We can’t connect with people from the other side of a screen. To truly create dialogue with someone, it helps to look them in the eye, to see their humanity, to acknowledge there is a person behind the words on the screen.”

Online, people have been opining for days about whether Degeneres and Bush should have sat with each other. Some called it a publicity stunt. Some speculated it was a not-so-secret meeting of the illuminati. (“Without Jay-Z and Queen Bey? I mean, really, people,” says Homer.)

Comments sections of posts and blogs filled with theories and judgments.

“Among all of that disconnect and vitriol, the thing I see that pulls so many people to this story is the connection between Ellen and W. We all want love and respect and kindness and forgiveness,” says Homer.

“‘Yes.’ Maybe we’re all tired of the divisiveness, anger and hate that have consumed so much of our media and our minds over the past few years. ‘And…’ to get past that, we have to see and hear one another. Hearing isn’t about agreement. We have to see the humanity in one another and learn to respect each other from there.”

But how does it begin?

Homer suggests, “Ask yourself this question: Are you intentionally making space for people to bring different perspectives? Are you creating space where it’s OK for others to be different? To hold different perspectives?”

She says managers and leadership must speak to their teams, leading by example.

“Go out for coffee with someone who has different views than you. Grab a drink with that coworker with a different background than yours. Look them in the eye. Hear their story. Realize they are not the ‘other’ or words on a screen, but a human being, just like you,” she says.

“If we can practice ‘yes, and’ in our lives, maybe we’ll become a little more civil with one another, and it won’t be surprising to see us seated together at a coffee shop, a restaurant or a ballpark.”

That’s her hope, she says.

Homer pauses for a moment and quotes writer Vera Nazarian, who said, “Sometimes, reaching out and taking someone's hand is the beginning of a journey. At other times, it is allowing another to take yours.”

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Robert H. Smith School of Business
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University of Maryland
Robert H. Smith School of Business
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