8 Tips for Saying Yes and No


As much as we’d all like to communicate more clearly, it turns out we aren’t very good at saying “yes” and “no.” We agree to things we don’t fully support. We accept tasks and deadlines we know we can’t complete in time. We take on more than we can handle. On the flip side, we turn down offers and opportunities that would be positive opportunities for growth. Or, we choose to say nothing at all – in the form of procrastination or avoidance – in situations where giving a direct “no” is clearly the best option.

Why? Are we just that masochistic?
Here are a few theories:

Social Validation & Fear of Judgment: This is the classic and universal experience of “peer pressure.” If everyone else in a group is supporting an idea or decision, our inclination as humans is to go along with it as well, even if we don’t fully support it. To go against the grain can mean welcoming rejection and inciting judgment.  Similarly, we are inclined to say “yes” to every request that comes at us, addicted to the validation that results from pleasing others. When this gets pushed to the extreme, we leave our own needs, boundaries and opinions behind.

The Discomfort of Confrontation: Sometimes saying “no” creates discomfort in conversations or relationship dynamics. It’s naturally generated when a mismatch in expectations or perspectives is uncovered. On the positive side, this discomfort is what ultimately leads to discussion and alternative solutions. However, because many of us have been trained to think that discomfort and conflict are always bad, or will lead to rejection and lack of acceptance, we avoid it at all costs.

Fear of Failure: Even when a part of us is thrilled and excited by an opportunity to stretch and grow, the fear of failure can take over and keep us in our comfort zone. In this case, the imagined pain of failure (and the resulting rejection by others) overshadows the possibility of new learning, deeper insights and expanded potential.

Perfectionism: Because of both external and self-imposed pressures to be perfect, we often want to say “yes” to everything. If we don’t, it might mean we’re not “the best,” or not completely capable.  The irony is that the habit of saying “yes” to everything creates an impossible situation to manage, leading to higher chances of missteps or failures.

Here are 8 tips for saying “yes” and “no” with more clarity and intentionality:

  1. Get Centered in Your Values: Instead of being pulled in one direction or another by fear, social pressures or perfectionism, center yourself in the deeper ideals you hold as true and valuable. What’s more important than external validation? It will be different for each person, but may include principles such as integrity, authenticity, vulnerability or honesty.
  1. Clarify Personal & Organizational Priorities: When considering which personal commitments to accept or reject, it’s helpful to know what type of future vision you’re working to create. If you can envision and articulate a few core elements of your desired future, you’ll more clearly see what actions should be considered priorities in the present. The same is true when it comes to professional commitments. If you understand the strategic priorities of your organization, it will be easier to see what present activities are the most important.
  1. Some Things are Always “Yes” or Always “No”: Part of successfully navigating and advancing within organizations is understanding the non-negotiables. Some tasks are just part of your job description, and it’s understood that you’re going to do them. That’s what you were hired for. This speaks to the importance of fully understanding the core duties of your role, so you can perform those with consistency and excellence. Beyond that, you’ll need to choose “yes” or “no” when it comes to negotiating deadlines, deciding on process, agreeing on the nature of outcomes, or taking on tasks above and beyond your main role.  When it comes to the things that are always “no,” these include non-negotiables on the other end of the spectrum, like unethical business practices.
  1. Ensure Understanding of Expectations: In preparing to say “yes” or “no” to any task or responsibility, you need to ensure that you grasp the full expectations involved. You can’t give an honest and accurate response until you know exactly what’s expected of you. This means asking questions and engaging in discussion to eliminate ambiguities and assumptions. You may think you grasp what’s expected, but you’ll need to ensure you see it through the other person’s eyes.
  1. Avoid the Soft “Yes” and “No”: This is about speaking in a straightforward and clear way. Sometimes, even when we know we need to either say “yes” or “no,” we hedge it and say “I’m not sure,” or “I think I can probably do that.” Uh…what does that mean? So…was that a “yes” or a “no”? This creates ambiguity, and either commits us to things we don’t want to do, or excludes us from things we really want to do. Subsequently, we get resentful towards that activity or person, which can affect our performance and relationships.
  1. Learn How to Counteroffer: There’s actually another response we often ignore or don’t think about – the counteroffer. It’s a form of negotiation, where instead of giving an ambiguous pseudo “yes,” you can make adjustments or changes to a request such that it will fit with what’s possible for you. It can take the form of a statement like: “Yes, I can work on this, but could we adjust the timeline in this way? Here’s what I’d propose. What do you think?” Start practicing this and see what impact it can have.
  1. Be Willing to Stand in Temporary Discomfort: Depending on the context, saying “no” to something can create discomfort. This is because, when it comes down to it, you’re not fulfilling the hopes or expectations of another person. Although not pleasant, it’s a natural part of communication and relationship dynamics. Be willing to stand in it. Use it to fuel effective conversation or negotiation about what is possible, or to provide insights and learning about each other. The small amount of discomfort you experience now is better than the more exaggerated frustration that could emerge later when an agreed-upon task doesn’t get done.
  1. Engage in Discussion: Every clearly delivered “yes” or “no” is always an opportunity for discussion. Not to hedge, back-pedal or create ambiguity, but to provide more insight about what lies behind an answer. Since we all see the world through our own individual filter, discussions about commitments, tasks and use of time are chances to learn more about each other and to build connections. Lobbing out a one-word “yes” or “no” won’t serve the relationship as fully as a response that provides added insight and welcomes dialogue.