October 3, 2019 / 5 comments
Why ‘Yes, and’ should be a vital part of any activist’s vocabulary
Last week I wrote an article called ‘What If Friday September 20th 2019 was the Day the World Tipped?’. It was a piece, inspired by my visit to the Global Strike for Climate in Westminster, that dared to imagine how it might be if that day, and the strikes all over the world, actually proved to be the moment that we could come to look back on as the day we entered a new era of urgency, impact and possibility. While it received a lot of praise, the comments section at Resilience.org took great glee in tearing it to pieces. Some choice quotes:
- “When we hear the kind of drivel you spout here, we ask “is he ignorant or is he corrupt?” Because you clearly understand nothing. So which are you?”
- “We’re living through a catastrophic transition consisting of the unravelling and ultimate demise of the second industrial revolution”
- “The author suffers from mass march euphoria syndrome”
- “I have given up on the hope of an effective transition. I see the only way forward for myself and my family is to prepare for our long term survival as best we can”.
And so on. All based in some valid thinking no doubt. But all leaping onto a declaration of hope and possibility and pouring multiple buckets of cold water all over it. It is a pattern not restricted to the hallowed pages of Resilience.org.
The last few days I have been touring in Belgium and France, speaking about my forthcoming book ‘From What Is to What If’ and exploring with audiences, through interactive activities, that possibility that maybe, just maybe, we might be witnessing the beginning of a remarkable time of rapid transition. I invite them to dream (literally) that the Global Strikes, Extinction Rebellion’s October actions, trigger a cascade of positive change that leads to a period of remarkable change. I invite them to travel forward in time to see what that might sound, taste, smell and feel like. It has been going down a storm, standing ovations every night.
But every night, during Q&A, there are always several questions along the lines of “yes, but surely it’s too late/the people in charge won’t allow it/nothing ever really changes/it’s not possible”. There are of course many reasons why they might well be right, and my belief in the possibility of change might be completely unfounded. I’m not denying that.
We can’t ‘stop’ climate change, it’s more the degree to which we can slow it down. Changes are in train that could prove irreversible. The global political situation is looking atrocious. And yet … do we really want to close down the possibility that deep change is still one possibility on the table?
What I want to reflect on here is on those two words, “Yes, but”. And their antidote “Yes, and”. While I was researching ‘From What Is to What If’, I did an improvisation course with the Spontaneity Shop in London, and interviewed its co-founder, Deborah Frances-White. On the course, we did one exercise where, in pairs, one person makes a suggestion and the other person indignantly shuts it down. “Let’s play football!”. “You know I can’t play football! I just broke both my legs!”
Then you do a version of that where someone makes a suggestion, and the other person just drowns it in a lack of enthusiasm. “Let’s go to Paris!” “We could I suppose, but I’m feeling a bit tired, and it’s the final of Strictly Come Dancing this week”. Doing this exercise, as someone who campaigns for positive solutions on climate change, feels all too familiar, every idea for a bold and purposeful leap forward is shut down, drowned in a slightly superior sense that they know you’re wrong, they are just breaking the blindly obvious to you. Sound familiar?
The third activity in the series is ‘Yes, and’. In ‘Yes, and’, the first person says “Let’s go to Paris”, and the second person responds enthusiastically, building off the previous statement. “Yes, and we could climb the Eiffel Tower!”. The discussion then goes backwards and forwards, each building on the previous statement, going with it, trusting each other and letting the conversation go where it wants to go. “Yes, and we could make paper aeroplanes to throw off the top!” “Yes, and we could write love letters to strangers on them!” “Yes, and we could see who catches them and then run down the stairs and see if that person might like to have lunch together!” “Yes, and …. “ and so on.
When I asked Deborah Frances-White about ‘Yes, and’, she told me “to really ‘Yes, and’ in the moment takes trust, because it makes you feel vulnerable. If I have to say “Yes, and” to the last thing you said, then I have to be changed by you. The training to ‘Yes, and’ makes you more open to life”.
“There are a lot of times in real life”, she went on, “where we’d say no out of habit, or out of this idea that we’ll be safer. We won’t be safer. We’ll just have less fun, go on less adventures”. She talked about how it works in relation to climate change, how so many suggestions are closed down with “Yes, but”. “There’s so much no”, she told me, “so much no”.
Jeremy Finch, who led the workshop I did, told the group at the end of our ‘Yes, and’ session, “’I have no idea where this is going’ is the improv artist’s art”. And as Deborah elaborated, “saying yes to your partner’s idea represents a risk. You have to let an alien idea in, and if you have to build on it, you have to let it influence you”.
And so in my talks now, when I get a ‘Yes, but’ question, I invite the audience to do the ‘Yes, and’ exercise. Not because I want to naively dismiss their concerns, because I think that making the changes we need to make will be easy, without struggle, grief, hardship, pain or many moments when we feel it’s not going to work. Not because I want to peddle unfounded ‘hopium’ (a term I hate, if ever there was a term that condensed ‘Yes, but’ into a single word, that is it). But rather because we need to feel what it feels like, given how far beyond our daily experience it is.
I worry that in the amazing movements, the movements rising up around the world, the School Strikes, Extinction Rebellion and many others, often people’s deepest belief is it is too late, that we are going to fail, but that we have to do something, anything. We ‘Yes, but’ ourselves. And often with good cause. But what if we make space in our movements for ‘Yes, and’?