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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The importance of seeking out uncomfortable news

It has long been recognised that humans have a tendency to filter out what doesn’t fit within their frame of reference, unconsciously blanking out uncomfortable messages. The capacity to manage such ingrained habits is not only harder than most of us think (“What do you mean – of course I’m open minded!”), but it is also an essential skill for anyone with responsibility for the growth of the organisation and the business.


Here is a current example. I have just come off a telephone call with a sales representative of a large accounts software business. In searching for a new software package I had road-tested an online demo version. Having wisely captured my details via the web, the company followed up by calling me today. While the rep was friendly and sounded knowledgeable, he failed to respond in any way to my mildly-expressed concerns that the software might not be quite right for my needs. Instead he explained all the benefits the software offered. The paradox is that these benefits, though impressive sounding, won’t win him the sale. Addressing my concerns however, gently acknowledging my hesitancy (a natural consequence of my not wanting to sound stupid when talking about accounting!), would be the very thing that would have potentially won him the business.


Knowing that this is how we are wired, good managers and leaders do two key things. First they become adept at spotting when they are avoiding dealing with something, whether an ‘elephant in the room’, or a vague sense of discomfort.  They know that responding to such sensations can generate the most positive and powerful change, provided they can pay careful attention to them, and find the courage and calmness to address them. Second, they actively seek out points of difference. They listen out for any words used by others that seem to jar a little, they look for any clue that indicates the other person may be seeing things differently, and they use these to gently open up and explore the perceptions of others.


Common sense, yes of course; common practice, no!


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Generalising your way out of personal responsibility

How often I hear people say something along these lines: “you can’t say ‘no’ to clients” or “you just have to put up with so-and-so”.

In both examples the issue being described has been depersonalised and generalised by the use of the word ‘you’. In what amounts to a linguistic slight of hand that for the most part seems to go largely unnoticed, the tactic removes the person from being a partial owner of (or contributor to) the problem and thus they cannot be held responsible for addressing it. And why do this? Certainly they feel better, let off the hook, with the problem pushed onto the shoulders of others.

It’s perfectly amazing how asking them to repeat what they’ve just said, only substituting “I” or “me” in place of “you” can start to bring an awareness and insight that creates the possibility for real change.

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