Make life bigger than “Yes” versus “No”

Many people want you to stop saying “Yes” to everything. It’s overloading your life, sapping your energy, and keeping you from doing the meaningful stuff. Jeff Goins calls this “the small but soul-crushing word you use every day.

Their solution? Say “No.”

This recommendation isn’t wrong, just incomplete. What it leaves out are two other legitimate responses to requests. By incorporating these into your repertoire, you not only free yourself from overscheduling. You also live a bigger life.

Master difficult conversations

Learn my best tips for staying cool under pressure and elevating your leadership in complex times.


Yes vs No

But first…

The virtues of saying “No”

Let’s give “No” its due. If you’re the kind of person who agrees to everything, making more frequent use of “No” helps you:

  • Avoid overcommitting yourself. This one is pretty obvious.
  • Focus on what matters most. Having less on your plate gives you time to consider what is truly important to you—and then focus on it.
  • Preserve your dignity. Declining a request can be an act of integrity. It’s not just that you feel better. You actually become a person who has the right and capacity to choose.
  • Increase your credibility. People will trust your “Yeses” more when they hear you say “No.” They’ll know you took the time to assess your skill, interest, and availability in bringing about what was asked.

In short, it often pays to say yes to “No.”

But not all of the time.

One alternative to “Yes” versus “No”

You’re in the middle of a meeting and someone hands you a note. (Yeah, I know. It would really be a text message or tweet. But humor me here.) The note says, “Luke insists on borrowing your light saber next Thursday. What should I tell him?” You’re immersed in the conversation, and this is a big commitment, so you write back, “Tell him I’ll let him know tomorrow morning.”

Alright, dear readers, is this a “Yes” or a “No?”

It’s neither. You’re saying I’ll get back to you with an answer. Some people call this “buying time” or “stall tactics.” I call it a Promise to Reply Later. The difference is more than semantics. When you promise to reply later, you are not avoiding commitment. You are making a commitment. And people can feel this. You can feel this.

Let’s set aside my Luke/light saber example for a moment and consider a more everyday business example. You run a manufacturing organization. Your peer, Amy, interfaces between you and the sales organization. She asks you if you can produce 50,000 units by the end of November. She is under a lot of pressure from the sales folks and wants your answer now—or so it seems. In the past, you might have said “Yes” to keep her happy, show that you’re in charge, or avoid your boss’s wrath.

But this time is different. You’re ready to practice a new response. You say, “Amy, this is a serious commitment, and I know you’ve got sales breathing down your neck. I want to give you a firm commitment of what I can produce and when I can produce it. To do this, I need 48 hours, and then I promise to give you an answer. Will this work for you?”

Amy might be disappointed by not having an immediate response, but will she view you as unconcerned about her interests, weak, or flaky? Not likely. Because you’ve acknowledged her situation and made a sincere commitment. Not to manufacture X amount, but to get back to her by a specific time.

It may seem a small thing, but you’ve simultaneously increased your degrees of freedom and shown up in a powerful way. You have made your life bigger than it was a moment ago.

What are some other times you may choose to promise to reply later?

Useful times to promise to reply later

  • Your attention is on something else. You don’t have a moment to think.
  • You are tired, cranky, wired, on a new medication, or otherwise not in the best physical condition to make a grounded response.
  • You aren’t clear on what’s been requested and may need to get clarification before responding.
  • Your ability to fulfill the promise depends on other people helping you. It would be wise to get their commitment before giving yours.
  • You have a habit of immediately saying “Yes” and want to pause to respond more mindfully.
  • You have a habit of immediately saying “No” and want to pause to respond more mindfully.
  • Your relationship with the other person is sticky or complicated, so you need time to place this request in the context of the relationship.
  • You just need more time.

Now, let’s say you’re in one of these situations. You’re not ready to say “Yes” or “No.” But you also don’t want to be one of those people who delay responding out of flakiness. You want to stand in integrity. How can you ensure you are doing this?

A few tips

  • Commit to getting back to the other person by a particular day or time. You are not blowing off the person. You are making a commitment to them. Not “I’ll let you know” or “I’ll think about it.” Those are too vague. What you say instead is “I’ll let you know by Wednesday evening.” Or, better yet, “I’ll let you know by Wednesday at 7pm.”
  • When you say this, you need to mean it. You have to be willing to stand by your commitment. Sincerity matters.
  • Follow through. Whatever you need to do to decide how you will respond, you do it. And then respond by the promised time. Of course, when Wednesday at 7pm comes around, you may realize Gee I’m still not sure how to respond to this request. These things happen. What’s important is that you communicate this to the other person. Worried that they’ll think you’re flaky for doing this? That’s possible, but the really flaky behaviors are agreeing to a promise you know you cannot keep or not responding by the promised time.

So the next time you’re not sure whether to say “Yes” or “No,” consider promising to reply later.

In my next post, I’ll introduce a fourth legitimate response to a request: the counteroffer.

Join the Conversation

I love hearing your comments and questions about these blog posts. Here is today’s question:

Question: When was the last time you promised to reply later? 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “Make life bigger than “Yes” versus “No”

  1. Amiel, I love the lighthearted but simultaneously extremely effective way you are illustrating speech act theory. You beautifully illuminated the move “promise to reply later.” Well done!

    • Stacy, you’ve been versed in speech acts for so many years that your comment means a lot to me. Thank you so much for your thoughts and taking the time to write!

  2. This is very good advice and not just when the person is asking for a “yes” or “no” answer. What works well for me, when somone asks for something that requires more thought, is; “I am sorry I can’t respond right now, but after I have a moment to consider (investigate, study, review) what you are asking, let’s say by tomorrow afternoon, I will have a response to you.”
    Same issue slightly different nuanced response, I must have had a great coach! 😉

Comments are closed.