How to Say Yes (When You Really Mean “No”)

The problem from the client was common.

His boss had agreed to something the CEO had asked to be done, and now it was being passed along to him to execute.

The problem was that the idea was flawed – “a turd on the table” as a former colleague of mine might have said – and his boss had already committed to it. And he didn’t want to get tagged as uncooperative with a boss who he worked hard to please.

So how do you say “yes” when you really mean “no?”

Bosses generally don’t wake up in the morning eager to hear the word “no” from the people who work for them. They get the word often enough from customers, and any kids in their family. And the larger the organization, the more bosses are used to hearing yes – sometimes frighteningly so.

While everyone – well, most everyone – claims they want candor, they really want candor AND agreement. The problem is that candor may be saying no, just like it’s saying yes, but get a habit of always saying no to your boss and career advancement – not to mention some boss / subordinate harmony – will wait until your next lifetime.

Saying no too often – just like Republicans in Congress – also fails to advance your point of view. Ideally you provide an answer which is a reasonable response that adds some value to whatever is going to be the context for the solution.

There are some times – as posted here – when saying “no” should be the only recourse. (As an aside, whomever could have said no to the kludged safety blow-out valve set up that has led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico comes to mind.)

But there are times when the most pragmatic, and politically smart thing for you is to say yes but really mean no.

So my coaching advice to my client?

Say “yes, and.”

As in, “yes I can do it, and here’s what the solution will look like. The CEO is not going to want this.”

The value in doing so is that “yes” often lets people listen to what follows. Saying “no” can elicit a partial shutdown because somewhere in the listener’s mind part of their brain quickly stops listening and starts formulating some rationale to counter your objection.

Yes, and” – the antithesis of “no, but” – keeps a listener’s mind open AND adds some additional information for them to consider.

The other piece I suggested to my client is to volunteer to take the hit (and any heat) from the CEO: offer to go back to talk to the CEO with their boss, or alternately, offer to follow-up with them individually. Either way, try to get yourself in on the conversation so that that instead of being told to do something that won’t work, you’ve participated in an exchange to give yourself a shot at something that will fly.

Your goal is to be handed an assignment on which you can execute. It’s not laziness (you’re a hard worker), or a fear of trying (you’re a Carol Dweck disciple). It’s being candid and sincere that is your motive and goal.

But (note that but ) unless you can communicate effectively in cases like these, you end up doing either work that may be pointless, not turning in your best work, and not being candid.

Cut to the chase? When you need to say no, use “Yes, and” at times instead. It will be heard better, and advance your point of view more effectively.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.

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