How To Elevate Your Life with a “Smarter Yes”

We live in a noisy world. Everywhere you turn there it is. Noise vying for your attention. Noise at home as the spouse and children place demands on you. Noise at work as the co-workers and supervisors push you to the brink. Noise at church as ministry commitments progressively encroach on your discretionary time. You want to be great at home, work, church, and in your community commitments. But, it feels overwhelming. You thought it was just going to be for a season. But, one season just rolls into another one. Now, you’re burning out physically and emotionally. You feel depleted—not sure how much longer you can keep going. People think you’re superhuman. But, you know you need better boundaries. It’s hard though because it’s hard to say ‘No’ out of a visceral fear of what might be lost. Your answer may simply lie in learning a smarter yes.

The noise is a direct outgrowth of our busyness. Busyness has been, in fact, the status symbol of the 21st century—particularly among the baby boom generation. We wear it like a badge of honor. We behave as if the person with the busiest calendar must be the most important—the most valued. My calendar is fuller than yours—with each engagement feeling like an affirmation to our ego or bank account.

You can see it even in our standard greetings as we add ‘…just crazy busy’ to whatever status we report. Despite the fatigue we may feel physically, our minds tell us that to be busy is to be needed and important. We feel like our life is counting for something. So, we live in this ironic conundrum—pursuing busyness while seeking shelter from the noise.

Yes, I’m guilty!

Some tell us that is is simply a matter of establishing healthier boundaries. There is indeed some truth to that. Seminal books like Boundaries: When to say yes, when to say no to take control of your life by Cloud and Townsend (affiliate link) offer an excellent discourse for establishing healthier patterns of commitment. Boundaries helps us know where we end and another begins. Boundaries help us skirt situations that may foster co-dependency. I highly recommend this book as a practical resource to help get better control of your life. But, I feel like this book, and others like it dichotomize life into two buckets, ‘no’ and ‘yes’. You can even see it in the title of the book itself.

When others need something from us, will it be “yes” or “no”? Learning how to say ‘no’ is touted as the panacea of self-understanding, boundary setting, and all around well-being. This is proposed by many as the answer to reduce one’s noise and busyness.  But, is it really?

I don’t think so.

I think this mindset is limiting—particularly for those of us who want to wield greater influence in our homes, our businesses, and our ministries. It is limiting because it stymies relationships and it may inhibit learning opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a time for clear “no” answers when something arises that conflicts with our core values or available time.

But, I suggest that people who achieve greatness in life spend much more time saying “yes” than saying “no”.

I believe that parents who raise children who are thought leaders spend more time saying “yes” than saying “no”.

I believe that people who get the majority of the promotions in the workplace spend much more time saying “yes” than “no”.

While some of them certainly overcommit themselves with their “yes” responses, I’ve observed something amazing. Great achievers have found (and sometimes perfected) a third option—beyond “yes” and “no”. Great achievers have learned to offer a smarter yes.

What is a smart yes?

A smart yes is an engaging and helpful response to one’s core problem or question.  Rather than the dismissiveness often implied with a “no” or the potential obligation connoted by a “yes” response, a smart yes does five things:

  • Prioritizes engagement (says that this relationship matters to me)
  • Seeks understanding (listens for the core problem or need)
  • Takes ownership (seeks to be solution-oriented)
  • Offers options (leverages resources to give viable direction)
  • Minimizes overcommitment (keeps my plate full with what ONLY I can do)

Here are examples of smart yeses in a couple of different domains to give you a sense of what I mean.

On your job, your supervisor asks if you can take on another project to your already overcommitted schedule since the rest of the team is already stretched thin. You could simply say “No. I’m already overcommitted too”. This protects your schedule but does little to build rapport with your supervisor. You could say “Yes. I’m really busy too. But, I’ll figure out a way to take care of it.” This relieves your supervisor and makes you seem like a team player. But, it may sacrifice your own physical and emotional well-being. Neither option is ideal.

Or, you could say something like “It seems like you are feeling pressured to do more with limited resources. I’ve worked before with this external consultant who does excellent work for a reasonable price. I spoke with her yesterday. So, I know she has time available. Would you like for me to give you her contact information?” In this scenario, you did not personally take on the project. But, you took ownership of it.

A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to give a smarter yes to my then 14 year-old daughter who felt she was ready to have a boyfriend. We sat and talked with her about this decision. The crux of her question was “Could she start dating?” We could have said “No. You’re too young.” Or, we could have given other reasons for the “no” response. Of course, we could have said “yes” and made her feel pleased with us. But, first we asked her what dating this young man would mean to her. We asked what her expectations were about the dating relationship. We asked what this young man’s expectations were of the relationship (which she not surprisingly had no idea about). With a relatively clear understanding of the situation, we gave her a smarter yes.

We told her that “yes” she could start dating. But, then we set very clear expectations about what was permitted in this dating relationship. With these ground rules, she was free to proceed. Not surprisingly, the relationship was over in a matter of weeks. Rather than dismiss her question with a “No” (and potentially alienate our daughter), we took time to own the question. In doing so, my daughter felt heard and understood. Our questions made her think about what she was doing. So, it was a great learning experience for her as well—beyond what a simple “no” would have conferred.

Now, contrast this parenting example with the one I personally grew up in. When I young, I often had a ton of questions. But, I understood that my parents did not owe me an answer or explanation to those questions—particularly when they were instructing me to do something. Yes, I could ask all the questions that I wanted until I annoyed them. But, the boundary was clearly articulated in their response, ’“because I said so”. In other words, I didn’t have to understand. I just had to obey. This method may build good followers. But, it lacks the depth to build great leaders.

Offering a smarter yes works because it  says what is important to you is important to me. Employers want employees that will own a problem—offering solutions rather than just recounting all of the reasons things will never improve.

In ministry settings, leadership opportunities abound for those who are a conduit to healthier congregational engagement.

In the home, children and spouse are empowered by encouraging suggestions rather than dismissive putdowns.

So, what stands in the way of your smarter yes?

For many of us our busyness and harried lifestyles generate so much noise that we can’t clearly assess the needs or concerns beneath the problems that are posed to us. For others, we don’t understand how our use of “no” and “yes” is really creating an unsustainable lifestyle and/or limiting our potential  personally and professionally.

The irony is that a smarter yes, may reduce our load as we empower others to act.

When presented with a question or concern, (rather than simply saying “yes” or “no”) here are three tips on how to take your life to the next level with a smarter yes. 

  • Listen carefully to discern the fundamental problem that is behind the question (what does this person need?) – remember that the need may be psychological and/or physical
  • Look for effective solutions that empower the person (what do I have at my disposal that this person would value?)
  • List 2-3 options, if at all possible (while identifying which one you recommend and why)

I hope you’ve gleaned from this post that a smarter yes is not just a direct answer. It is really an attitude.

People who master the smarter yes are seen as in-demand leaders and problem-solvers in any industry or endeavor. They often are in a position to write their own ticket because they understand people. Like Zig Ziglar said, “you can achieve anything you want in life, if you help enough people achieve what they want.”

The key is in your smarter yes.

Leave a comment and give me some examples of how you have successfully used the smarter yes in your own journey.