Getting France to say ‘yes and….’


In improvisational theatre, there’s a game that practitioners play called ‘Yes and…’.  The idea is that someone starts telling a story, and each person goes around the circle and builds on the idea or suggestion of the previous person.


“Let’s go to the beach!”


“Yes, and we can go surfing!”


“Yes, and then we can have a BBQ for dinner!”


“Yes, and then we can have ice cream for dessert!”


“Yes, and then we can watch the sunset go down over the ocean – that will be so beautiful!”


Under no circumstances is anyone allowed to say ‘no but’.  ‘No but’ kills creativity.   It would stop the story in its tracks, creating disengagement, preventing imagination from expanding and, critically, disconnecting people from their power, shutting down the conversation.


‘Yes and….’ is a beautiful idea and one I have thought of often since coming to live in France more than 7 years ago.


I love France.  I love the beauty and elegance of Paris, the stunning countryside and the gorgeous houses.  I love the food, I love the art and, in many cases, I have come to love even the prickly French!  But what I struggle with most is the lack of a ‘yes and’ attitude to life that, I believe, lies at the heart of what stops France from progressing and stepping up to the global leadership that the world so desperately needs right now.


I run an organisation that uses participatory theatre to empower migrant and refugee women and children.  At the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, I began to look for opportunities to develop my work in France.  Subscribing to the mayor of Paris’s blog, I learnt of a new centre being opened for women and children refugees in a suburb in the south of the city.  I tried endless avenues to connect with this centre, emailing the Mairie’s office, trying to make a connection through women’s organisations I had heard of in Paris and making endless attempts to visit refugee camps I had heard of to try and make a connection.  Finally, I got through to a lady in charge of the centre.  I emailed her to propose a meeting next week.  She said she would be in touch.  The next week I emailed again.


“Madame, I am extremely busy.  I will email you in six week’s time to arrange a meeting!” was the reply.


Six weeks!  Just to arrange the meeting?  When was the meeting going to be?  Next year?


I was horrified.  Her email was blunt and dismissive.  Arrogant, even.  I was offering a way to help, something for free, that could have contributed to the lives of the people she worked with.  Non!  C’est pas possible.


In my 7 years of living here, I have rarely had any idea met with enthusiasm, let alone open arms and, of all the countries I have lived and worked in (Hong Kong, China, the UK, US, Germany, India…), I have never encountered so many obstacles to simply doing good work.  The list of obstacles are many: bureaucracy, tradition, intransigence (‘that’s not how we do things here’), lack of a generosity of spirit, a preference for meetings instead of action, fear of taking a risk…..but, mostly, a cultural mindset that likes to say ‘no but’ instead of ‘yes and’.


Last year, heavily pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I took a trip to Berlin.  I spent three days walking around the city in the freezing cold, knocking on doors of refugee camps, organisations that worked with them and other NGOs working with women and children.  By the end of those three days, we had an invitation to set up a project in a refugee camp that summer that has now blossomed to partnering with two organisations and the beginnings of rolling out our work to refugee women and children in shelters across the city and community-based workshops with newcomers, expats and migrants.


I had achieved more in three days in Germany, than 7 years in France.  Oh, Mr Macron, what a job you have to do!


I firmly believe that what impedes an individual, a country or even the world from progressing is rarely economic systems, global institutions or ‘capacity’ as defined by man power or even military might.  What causes the biggest obstacles to our progress is, quite simply, our mindset.  Our capacity to say ‘yes and’ to an opportunity, to open our arms to possibility, expand thought and step into our power with a magnamity and willingness to try new things.


It’s something that my friend Travis Thomas understands with his work ‘Live Yes And’, based on the principles of the improvisation game I mentioned above.


“You cannot progress until you say ‘Yes’!  There is no progress, movement, or action until you say “yes” to what is happening. It is acceptance of the present moment, and then your “and” is your response with purpose! 


So what would it take for France to develop a ‘yes and’ approach to life?  And what impact might that have on the future progress of the country and her people?

Published by Caroline Watson

Founder of Hua Dan, a China-based social enterprise that uses the power of participation in theatre as a tool for personal and social transformation. Young Global Leader 2011 of the World Economic Forum. Writer, speaker and entrepreneur.

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