How to make good yeses and noes

Charlotte Chan
5 min readOct 19, 2020
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Knowing when and how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ can help you manage your time and build the best careers. Often, we say ‘yes’ as a way to prove our value and especially so in this current state of a pandemic where people are more protective of retaining their jobs by going out of their way to prove that they are indispensable.

However, have you noticed in certain situations you were in where you kept saying yes but found yourself over-committed? Did you feel overwhelmed, unable to make good decisions and then disappointed people?

Based on HBR’s podcast featuring Bruce Tulgan and my take on this topic, there is a need to reimagine the current perceptions of saying yes and no and instead, shift towards making strategic yeses and well-reasoned noes.

Saying yes blindly, is the kiss of death

Reimagine the ‘Yes’

Humans have the innate nature to say ‘yes’ to requests because we want to please others. To make good yeses, we have to adopt a holistic understanding of what does a ‘yes’ entail. Saying ‘yes’ to things takes time and energy, it raises people’s expectations and most importantly, it is a commitment. So what makes a bad yes? It happens when you are unable to deliver or perhaps deliver the wrong things — this is undesirable because this would accumulate to become what you would be known for.

The desire to please others is a deadly trap and an unrealistic outcome that we expect to achieve from saying ‘yes’. Instead, we should keep in mind the need to play the game for the longer term. Hence, considering our reputation is a much sustainable and realistic outcome. The intermediate game is the outcomes that we can produce from saying ‘yes’ to requests. Often, there is an urge to show that you are respectful of the request(s) and that you are service-minded but this does not mean that you have to say ‘yes’ immediately.

How to shift from making bad yeses and noes to good yeses and noes

  1. Tune in to the ask

Listen to the request(s) and ask good questions by starting with ‘let me make sure I understand what you need here…’. This shows clearly to the requestor that you are tuning in to their ask, you honour their needs and you are taking the time to evaluate the appropriateness of what you know you do best in.

2. Always assume that you are not a superhero — you can’t do everything for everyone

Your goal is to engage in tasks or activities where you can add maximum value. Tasks take up time and energy and there is a need to evaluate them and allocate your time and energy appropriately. Perhaps, offering help to find a different resource might make more sense than blindly saying ‘yes’. Here, you want to find ways where you can align your ability to add value to the needs of the requestors around you and not saying ‘yes’ for the sake to please.

3. Funnel your requests through your due diligence process

Ask yourself these questions, ‘Is it as small as it seems?’, ‘can I do this’?, ‘am I allowed to do this’?, and ‘should I do this?’. These questions can help to shape a habit to make better decisions over time.

4. Concentrate your yeses to your areas of speciality

As discussed above where we ought to see good decision-making as a way to build up a desirable reputation in the longer term. It is strategic to move more requests to your areas of speciality and what you want to be known for.

For example, my expertise lies in storytelling and hence I will field requests that have to do with putting together pitch decks or enhancing writings in RFPs. I am confident of delivering it and when I do deliver, it attributes to my reputation to be known for storytelling and being someone who can bring things to the table.

Should you come across requests that fall into areas outside of your speciality but you are willing to try, communicate to the requestor your portfolio of speciality but your interest to explore this new area(s).

Every bad yes craft out a much better yes. Just as every well-reasoned, well-timed yes makes room for a better no

How to make well-reasoned noes

The shift to making good yeses and noes can help establish your reputation in the organisation over time. Perhaps, next time when you say ‘no’ to something, people around you will respect it and perhaps, re-frame the ask because you will be known for making good decisions and not because you are incompetent or lazy. Making well-reasoned noes from tuning to the ask can help set yourself up for really good yeses.

Regarding the re-framing of saying ‘no’, shift the attention to the explanation of your speciality instead of saying ‘there’s too much on my plate right now’. The conversation is crucial in allowing you to add value and demonstrate what you can do and not what you are unable to.

How about power dynamics? I don’t have the authority to say no to my boss!

That’s one big dilemma I used to have and continue to have. No matter how much an organisation attempts to flatten the hierarchy, someone is still in charge. To go about this, angle the dialogue such that your manager or the person whom you report to understands and respects your strengths and passion.

For example, setting up frequent coffee chats with my bosses at work gives me airtime to share about my achievements which signal my strengths and passion in project management related roles. Hence, my boss is less likely to offer me project roles that requires deeper technical skills sets and thus, I am less likely to find myself struggling with deciding and worrying how to say ‘no’.

The key to being indispensable at work (especially in this current state of a pandemic):

The answer here is an accumulation of the points above. In summary:

  1. In conversations with the requestor(s), don’t talk about things you are unable to do but instead, be specific for what you can do for people based on your speciality. This helps signal positive things about your schedule, productive capacity and capabilities;
  2. Understand the concept of influence — you want to grow to be the ‘go-to person’ for areas of your speciality. Real influence is achieved when people trust you, want you to be successful and want to make good use of your time;
  3. A good and rational decision-maker is someone who is not focused on getting what they need from other people but instead focused on what they can serve people. These people have the perception at the moment they are saying no, they are committed to a service where time and energy is viewed as a critical resource that the task(s) is dependent on;

Stop managing your time. Start managing your focus — Robin Sharma



Charlotte Chan

Technology consultant in a leading global MNC, ex-VC and strong advocate of using technology and capabilities to make a difference in people's lives.