The “Yes But” Challenge

Those innocuous-sounding words,  “yes, but”,  occur so commonly and habitually in normal human communication, that over time most people are completely unaware of their existence and impact. And more significantly, most people are unaware of the potential that exists to improve the quality of relationships and mutual understanding, when the presence of these words is subject to closer attention.

This week has been a classic example for me. I’ve sat in meetings, participated in workshops and seminars, noticing how much of the time people’s views and comments have been gently, and often politely, resisted through the automatic “yes, but”s of their colleagues. Of course what is significant is not so much the words themselves but the underlying attitudes they tend to reveal. One case will illustrate my point.

A partner in a law firm described how he wanted to bring on an associate member of his team who was showing a lack of enthusiasm and energy. He recalled how he had tried to convince her: “Yes, but you are really good at your job; you honestly will have no difficulty taking on the extra responsibility”. As we explored the challenge together, it seemed like a profound moment of insight when he realised he would probably have a greater chance of engaging the associate if, initially at least, he simply acknowledged her current frame of mind with a “yes” (rather than a “yes, but”), taking the time to understand and accept the fact of her reticence.  

So each “yes but” moment gives an opportunity to see where something is being resisted, where the individual feels challenged and uncomfortable. And as in physics, where every action generates an equal and opposite reaction, the effect of “yes but” is generally to entrench the position of the other and to limit the likelihood of change.

So if we want to influence others successfully, starting to notice and manage our own “yes but”s is a fabulous place to start.

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