Yes! No. Yes?

Storyteller on a mission, breakfast enthusiast, reluctant master's student

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One of your classmates catches you on your way out of class and asks you to spend your weekend working on a project for their startup. You might feel pressure to say "yes" in order to preserve your relationship with them or because you know that you’re the most capable option… but you’re not interested in the project, or don’t have time for it.

What do you do?

You could say yes. Even though you’re not interested, you could take it on anyway.

You could make an excuse. “I’m so sorry, but I’ll actually be out of town this weekend. For an emergency. Err, wedding. An emergency wedding.” This is often a go-to move, because it transfers the responsibility for the refusal to an outside source. You’re not saying no, the circumstance is. If it weren’t for the emergency wedding, you’d totally be there. The trouble with this route is that there are consequences of getting caught: you run into your classmate in the Kendall T stop and have to try to explain why you’re there, and not where you said you’d be.

You could delay. “I think I can be there—let me check.” This buys you some time to decide if you actually want to be involved, and making that decision is much easier when they’re not standing in front of you. However, it’s not a good tactic for saying no. The request doesn’t usually go away, so if you decide that you don’t want to get involved, you still have to give them an answer or excuse.

So what can you do when you know that you don’t want to be involved, but you do want to preserve the relationship?

You can use a technique developed by William Ury, an author and negotiation expert, called a Positive No.

It works like this: Yes! No. Yes?

Yes! - You affirm the relationship you have with the person.

No. - You say “no” to compromising your preferred outcome.

Yes? - You express interest in future options.

Using the weekend project example above, it might sound something like this: “Thanks for thinking of me! It sounds like an interesting project. (Yes!) I already have other plans for the weekend (No.), but perhaps we can work on something together in the future?” (Yes?)

Or, if you don’t want to propose the idea of future work, “Thanks for thinking of me! I love your enthusiasm for the project. I’m not taking on any additional work right now, but I’d love to hear how it goes the next time I see you!”

You might say "yes" to things that you don’t want to do for a lot of reasons:

  • You don’t want to damage the relationship

  • You feel pressured by authority, or maybe you want to appear capable to your boss.

  • You may underestimate what the ask is

  • You don’t want to be seen as impolite

  • You’re flattered to be asked to do this thing

  • You think ‘If I say no, then who will do it?’

  • You think ‘No one can do this job as well as I can; therefore I have to do it.’

  • You want people to like you

  • You’re afraid of missing out on something

It’s a real, human thing to experience the pressure to agree. It’s also powerful to say “yes” to the right things, and “no” to the things that take away from those.

One of my professors at MIT once told me, “You want to be available when your dreamboat comes along. You won’t be able to do that if you’re already dating someone else.” While I find the metaphor to be hilarious, I think the important lesson is recognizing that we have a finite amount of time in the day. If your schedule is already full, you won’t be able to take that meeting or have a cup of coffee with an important friend. (Who may or may not be your “dreamboat.” You never know.) Saying no enables us to say yes to the things that really matter to us.

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