First published by Rob Hopkins in October 2020.
Near the end of my recent visit to Luxembourg, I was interviewed for Luxembourgish TV by a reporter who is the country’s leading political interviewer. Think Jeremy Paxman or Andrew Neill – her job is to hold politicians to account. It was the first time I have ever done an interview like that, and it was a pretty intense and adrenalin-filled hour of my life.
About half way through the interview I started to notice a pattern. Every time she asked me a question she would start it with the word ‘but’. For me it felt like it dismissed, and swept aside, everything that I had been saying up that point, offering the next question as a kind of ‘gotcha’. I tried my best to respond to each question with a positive mixture of stories of things I’ve seen in the world, trying to open up possibilities and bringing the best evidence I know of to support what I was saying. It felt like I would build, and then she would undermine and knock down, I would build, she would undermine and knock down. It was pretty exhausting. You’ll know the kind of thing, we see it on TV political shows every time we turn them on.
While we were talking, I found myself thinking about the difference between ‘Yes, but’ and ‘Yes, and’. I learned about ‘Yes, and’ when I studied improv theatre. ‘Yes, and’ is when someone makes an offer, a suggestion, and you build on it. You might say to me “do you like my hat?” You’re not actually wearing a hat, so I could just say “yes, but you’re not wearing a hat”, which kills any possibility of interaction and play stone dead.
Or, I would say “yes, and wow, what a beautiful hat. What does that handle on the side do?” I am allowing myself to be changed by your invitation, and then opening up new possibilities. You might then say “yes, and look what happens when I turn it!”, inviting me to respond again. Which we do over and over, building wild and inspired new narratives.
As Deborah Frances-White and Tom Salinsky write in their book ‘The Improv Handbook’, “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. You can’t plan your offer in advance, it depends on what your partner offers”. Saying “yes, but” allows us to stay safe, whereas “yes, and” means learning to trust people, and interact with people, and to co-create something that could only have arisen from that interaction. We open ourselves to being changed by that other person.
Just before lockdown, I had spent a couple of days with staff from Patagonia, the international outdoor clothing company, at a team retreat in the German mountains. It is a story I tell in more detail here, but in essence, on my second day with them, we did an exercise called ‘A Walk of What If’. They went out in groups of 6, with the invitation to think of as many ideas for how Patagonia could act, in everything it does, as though this was a climate and ecological emergency.
There were just 2 rules. The first was that they were to not feel constrained by existing policies, budgets, organisational culture, rather to think in big, bold leaps. Secondly, they were not allowed to respond to What If questions with ‘yes, but’, only ‘yes, and’, to listen to and build on the ideas of others. Off they went for an hour in the snow, and when they returned they were almost in an altered state of consciousness, clutching a great wad of What If questions, and with bright eyes and excited chatter.
It was the spirit in that room in the mountains that came back to me as I sat being grilled during that interview in Luxembourg. I found myself wondering if I would actually pull the interviewer up on her starting of every single question in the interview with the word “but”. Would it be outrageous to challenge one of Luxembourg’s leading journalists during her own interview? I decided I would. After all, it wasn’t like I was likely to get asked back at any point.
So when she asked her last question, I started by saying “I just want to point out that every question you have asked me has started with the word ‘but’. It really closes down discussion and possibility. How different might this interview have been if, instead, you had started by saying “yes, and” and we had then built off each other’s ideas and had a constructive discussion to which we both contributed? I’m not a politician. I can get that if you are interviewing Donald Trump, then “yes, but” is needed to try to hold him to account, but for me wouldn’t it have been better for us to have a constructive conversation?” (this is not a literal account of what I said, rather my recalling of the general gist of it).
Once the interview was over, she said to me “I’m sorry, I’m so tired, I slept so badly last night”. Then she added “you know, it is very very hard to sustain any hope for the future when you spend all of your time interviewing politicians”. I sympathised, and said that I could easily imagine that that was the case, and that she had my deepest commiserations. I suggested that perhaps next year, she and I might go on a road trip across Europe to visit projects where people are doing amazing things, in order to try and rebuild her sense of hope and possibility. We’ll see if she takes up the offer.
It left me thinking how different our media culture would be if we were to engage in discussions that offer more space for building ideas off other peoples’ ideas and trying to find inspired common ground, rather than debates where people don’t listen to each other and just ‘Yes, but’ each other continually, sucking all of the possibility out of the conversation. While I entirely appreciate that ‘Yes, but’ has a role in holding those in power to account, it also suffocates and stifles and undermines. Just for those few moments, I allowed myself to imagine how our political debates might look if they had ‘Yes, and’ at their heart. I liked what I saw.