Collaboration: The Ability to say, “Yes-And”

collaboration  Last week, I discussed consulting as the first ‘C’ in successful social justice projects.  This week, I will tackle the idea of collaboration as a critical component in development and research work with marginalized communities.  Collaboration is a word many people have heard stated in recent news articles.  This word is not always completely understood, however.  The dictionary defines collaboration as “(1) to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something, and (2) to give help to an enemy who has invaded your country during a war”.[1]

These definitions often imply that one group has less power to achieve their goals than the other group.  Each group brings a ‘story’ to the table, and collaboration often involves convincing the other group that their ‘story’ is not as meaningful or important. Many collaborative efforts fail, because one group ends up saying “no” to the other group.  A dominant story is created, which means one group ‘loses’, while the other group ‘wins’.

As successful collaborators, we sometimes need to change our own stories. The people we work with can introduce new stories and new possibilities.  These changes are often unexpected.  Unexpected changes in our plans can be uncomfortable for us.  When this happens, it is important to remember a concept taught in Improvisational Theatre (Improv) – “Yes-And…

Many people learn from an early age to respond “No”, or “yes, but” when faced with a change in expectations.  Collaboration, like Improv, requires a “yes-AND”, response, however.  Try this exercise for yourself:  if someone asks you if they can tell you a story about a dragon, and you say “no”, what happens?  The story is finished and never told.  If, however, you say, “yes! And the dragon is a queen who was magically cursed by a witch”, the story continues and builds as both of you create a new story together.

Collaboration which is based on “yes-and”, helps create a new ‘story’ which benefits everyone!  It is critical to remember that collaboration is a two-way street.  Both the consultant AND the partner have to engage in yes-and, or the project is over.  This makes collaboration a way for everyone involved to tell the story they want to be told.  As soon as the word “no” is uttered, the story stops, and the project is finished.  Collaboration has failed. Important work cannot continue. “Yes, BUT” is equally harmful to the collaboration process, because “but” is simply another word for “NO”.

Many collaborative development and social justice projects have failed or stagnated.  For many First Nations communities in Canada, ‘collaboration’ with government agencies has not worked – the words ‘but’ or ‘no’ have been a key part of the project vocabulary.  One example of this is the story told about herring harvests on the BC coast last year.  Even though the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is mandated to collaborate with west coast First Nations communities regarding important marine food harvests, the DFO made a decision to allow commercial live herring harvests in important Heiltsuk territories.  This decision was made without consulting with Heiltsuk leaders in a way that they expected to be included.  In short, the DFO said “no” to the Heiltsuk, and the Heiltsuk in turn said “NO” to the DFO.  This resulted in protests and blockades which ultimately caused key ocean areas to be closed to any commercial fisheries for the season.  Collaboration between the DFO and the Heiltsuk leaders was finished – simply because one of the parties failed to engage in “yes-AND”.  For more information on this critical event, check out this news report:

Failures to collaborate with First Nations on the West Coast continue, including issues like Lelu Island (, the Northern Gateway Pipeline (, the Keystone pipeline (, and the Great Bear Rainforest ( Every one of these conflicts involves inadequate collaboration.

Collaboration, if conducted well, can reduce global conflicts.  This is because all involved parties are actively engaged in a conversation based on Yes-And.  This conversation creates a story which includes everyone!  The more we learn to say yes-and to each other, the more we allow everyone to tell their story equally.  Once we accept each others’ stories as equally valuable, we are able to create new and better stories.  Real collaboration changes our reality for the better, and allows everyone to discover new innovations, new possibilities, and new realities.  This is what it will take to discover sustainable life-styles that benefit each and every one of us.  Collaboration is only a step in the process, however.  Next week I will discuss the third ‘C’ of social justice – Clarify.  Until then, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!

[1]  Accessed April 28, 2016.

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