A Constructive “No” as Positive Response

February 11th, 2014

My grandson, not yet 2, says “Yes” and “No”, and many other words and phrases. He is clear in the moment about knowing he does not want something, like a particular food or putting on his coat and he clearly says “no”. At other times he is clear he does want to go for a walk or read a book and he clearly says “yes.” And sometimes he doesn’t answer, he simply does what he is moved to do at that time.

Adults seem to have lost their way with “yes” and “no.” They say “yes” or nod agreement without qualification to something that they do not really want or do not feel competent to handle on top of everything else. And they are afraid of the word “no”. Afraid of hurting someone’s feelings because “no” sounds like a rejection of someone. Afraid they will be in trouble with a power figure if they say no. Afraid that something important will go undone if they say no. I suspect everyone can add to that list of fears.

Admittedly, in my grandson’s world choices are a little simpler than in adult situations. Go for a walk or play with a truck? Yes to one and no to the other. Or no to both. The nuance of “I’d like to play with a truck for a while and then put on my coat and go for a walk” tends to escape the child.

In adult relationships, whether in work or some other aspect of life, nuances are everything. Why then are we tempted into simple “yes” and “no” one word responses? One of my coaching clients was recently in a predicament arising from this basic interpretation. We talked together about the range of meaning and consequences present in the situation. A wholehearted “yes” can create a result that you know is bad for everyone involved, a result that was not foreseen by the manager or friend who suggested the course of action. Many feelings of being overwhelmed can be traced to too many unqualified yeses. Saying “no” with depth is being true to oneself and fair to others. If we really want success for everyone, shouldn’t we share our knowledge and judgment about the dynamics that are operating in the situation under discussion? That’s what a constructive “No” is. It affirms the positive intention of the suggestion and sheds light on the various factors involved, proposing an alternative, saying yes to this and no to that because the other would be so much more effective.

A constructive no, or a constructive yes for that matter, is so much healthier for the people involved and for an organization. Today’s organizations need to be more nimble than ever because they exist in environments that are rapidly changing and they must keep pace. The old industrial model of organizations no longer serves and the one-way communication of that model also does not serve. Organizations are often dealing with complex issues, one aspect of which is that no one person can know everything about the issue. We need the knowledge and judgment of all members of the team to continue to get to good decisions made in time for continual adjustment.

On a personal level, a simple yes or no is just not enough information. Not enough information for someone to understand what you mean. Isn’t shared meaning a goal for most of us? I had a friend who was Chinese who taught me that the Chinese first acknowledge the person, then deal with the idea. Yes to the person, then yes or no to the idea, thus addressing the fear of rejecting someone. Taking time to really understand what you are being asked, asking clarifying questions to be sure you understand, then responding thoughtfully is constructive. Replying from your whole self is a gift to the other person.

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