If It’s Not a Clear Yes, It’s a No


If it’s not a clear yes, it’s a no. The phrase tests our clar­i­ty and com­mit­ment. It does­n’t apply in every sit­u­a­tion that might be answered, “maybe, maybe not.” Not every­thing can be or should be clear cut. But the phrase may have dis­tinc­tive val­ue when it is a way of ask­ing our­selves about sit­u­a­tions where we might have been inad­ver­tent­ly deceiv­ing or dis­sem­bling, espe­cial­ly when we aren’t exact­ly sure how to be true to ourselves. 

I learned it many years ago par­tic­i­pat­ing in some meet­ings where two accom­plished entre­pre­neurs were work­ing togeth­er on an idea for a new busi­ness. One was sure he want­ed a part­ner­ship with the oth­er. One was not. After some time, as progress was not being made in their nego­ti­a­tions, the first entre­pre­neur asked the sec­ond, point blank, about their goal of going into busi­ness togeth­er: “Look, if it’s not a clear yes, Bill, it’s a no!” He was frus­trat­ed, and Bill did­n’t do very well in respond­ing. It was more than appar­ent in the moment that the part­ner­ship would nev­er take place.

Over the years I’ve used this phrase to help oth­er peo­ple break out of their dither­ing, side-step­ping, or one-foot-out-the-door inabil­i­ty to artic­u­late clear agree­ment or dis­agree­ment. But I find it’s even more help­ful with my own choice-making. 

A few years ago, a friend­ship I val­ued seemed to be slip­ping away. My friend was going through a dif­fi­cult divorce, and I won­dered if talk­ing to me about it was some­thing he was too embar­rassed to do. I dithered about whether to bring it up, and this went on for some time as I wait­ed for him to call me. Even­tu­al­ly, I had to give up on that fan­ta­sy and ask myself the ques­tion, “Do I want this friend­ship, real­ly?” If it’s not a clear yes, it’s a no. I imme­di­ate­ly gave him a call to say I was con­cerned about him and expressed my com­mit­ment to our friend­ship as he went through tough times. 

In anoth­er sce­nario, I was offered some work for a well-known region­al lead­er­ship pro­gram for small busi­ness­es. It would have been fun and chal­leng­ing and involve some great peo­ple to work with — and it would­n’t have paid me a dime. The indi­vid­ual mak­ing the offer was some­one I liked and respect­ed. The cause she rep­re­sent­ed was a good one, one I sup­port­ed. She promised “expo­sure” to poten­tial clients, and expressed how much she real­ly want­ed me to help out. So I dithered and the phrase came back to me. It was clear this project was not for me.

The real ques­tion, of course, is what’s behind the dither­ing. And there, I believe, call­ing up the phrase can help us iden­ti­fy where our sen­si­tiv­i­ties real­ly are. As in, what’s real­ly going on here? Will I dis­ap­point some­one else? Will I cre­ate an awk­ward moment? Will I vio­late my self-image in some way? Will I show my true col­ors, the ones I have trou­ble admit­ting to myself? 

The phrase encour­ages us to con­sid­er exact­ly what the but­tons are that cause us to pre­fer fog and ambi­gu­i­ty and the absence of clear sig­nals. All our pri­vate “yes-but’s.” Yes, but what if I find out he’s not going to talk with me? Yes, but I don’t want it to seem like I’m not a gen­er­ous person. 

As we make these deci­sions the knobs of our inter­nal Etch A Sketch reveal an image of our­selves that we might not exact­ly like. Dither­ing keeps the knobs still and we don’t have to learn any­thing new about who we actu­al­ly are.

Think­ing back to that first sce­nario and as some­one who had worked with Bill for some time, his dither­ing did trig­ger some­thing in me that day. It seemed to me he had let the con­ver­sa­tions with his poten­tial busi­ness part­ner con­tin­ue far too long before say­ing he was­n’t actu­al­ly inter­est­ed. That helped me put some­thing into per­spec­tive I’d felt about Bill, too, but had­n’t quite artic­u­lat­ed. He was a “nice guy.” Some­one you might want to work with, but also some­one who would­n’t want to say no too blunt­ly, who had been caught in his indi­rec­tion. I had seen that and felt it in our own rela­tion­ship, and yet I myself had nev­er called it out. 

Some­time after that and after putting a lit­tle too much ener­gy into our con­nec­tion, I began to let the rela­tion­ship with Bill with­er. For years now I have not heard from him. As with most impor­tant rela­tion­ships, if it’s not a clear yes, ulti­mate­ly it’s a no.


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