No More Ifs, Ands or Yes, Buts: Two Words that Can Change Your Life

by Diane Berenbaum

For many years now, I have harbored a habit that is not particularly helpful or attractive. It can be downright annoying, even exasperating, to those who know me well. It is, without a doubt, one of my least admirable qualities, which is why I am committing to break this habit, starting now…

What could possibly be so debilitating or discouraging? It's quite simple—just two words, in fact. It's the phrase "yes, but." I'm sure you've heard it and know what I mean. Perhaps one of your managers once said, "Yes, that is a great idea, but we can't afford it" or "Yes, but that is not a priority right now." And, you are aware of its impact. Maybe you even stopped making suggestions and just gave up, knowing that a "yes, but" would soon follow.

This two-word phrase sends signals and creates different perceptions, some of which we may not even realize, such as:

Doubt (and self-doubt): Yes, but we don't know if that will work or Yes, but I'm not sure I can do that again

Concern: Yes, but that would be costly or Yes, but we don't have enough time for that

Dismissive: Yes, but I'm busy right now or Yes, but we tried that last year

Negative/Nullifying: Yes, but that won't work in this case or Yes, you look great but…

Defensive: Yes, but I didn't have all the information I needed or Yes, but the IT Department was supposed to fix that

And, "yes, but" conversations can go on and on—even take on a life of their own. For example:

  1. I think it's time to discuss next year's conference.
  2. Yes, but I'm swamped at the moment.
  3. Yes, but it really helps to generate ideas well in advance.
  4. Yes, but I don't have time to come up with any ideas.
  5. Yes, but we could still meet and brainstorm our goals and objectives.
You get the picture. After a while, both parties leave with a "bad taste." And, they may feel a lot more skeptical about the upcoming meeting and far less motivated to contribute. Not to mention the impact on the relationships involved.

Now imagine what would happen if your customer service associates, or even their managers, routinely said "yes, but" to your customers. It might sound like this…

Customer:  I told you that there's a mistake on my statement and I want it fixed.
Associate: Yes, I get it, but that's not my job.
 Customer: But, I need to get this fixed!
Associate: Yes, but you need to speak with another department about that.
 Customer: You must know how to fix a simple mistake like this. It will just take a second.
Associate: Yes, but I'm not authorized to do that.
Customer:  Can you just transfer me to the right department, and I'll deal with them instead
 Associate: Yes, but the department that handles that is closed (or busy) right now.

Etc., etc., etc.

Chances are, given that discouraging exchange, you've just lost a customer.  

The good news is that, once we recognize that we are overusing that phrase, we can learn to replace it with another, more appropriate, two-word response: "yes, and." Customers will be a lot happier, and feel greater confidence in and respect for your organization, if they hear these words. Let's revisit that interaction about the mistake and consider the impact when the customer service associate responds with "Yes, and"…

  • I told you that there's a mistake on my statement and I want it fixed.
Customer Service Associate:     
  • Yes, and I can help you with that. Or…
  • Yes, and I apologize for the error and will correct it immediately.


  • Yes, and I would be happy to research that for you. Or…
  • Yes, and I can certainly understand your concern.  I would be happy to help.
  • Thank you.  I appreciate your help.  

The customer is relieved and now feels confident that s/he will get help. Amazing what a couple of words will do. Interestingly enough, the idea of saying "yes, and" is fundamental to improv comedy. One of the basic rules of improv is never to say "no," but always "yes" or "yes … and"; that is, to take a premise and expand on it. Avish Parashar, whose background is in improv, recently wrote a book on this topic, and it is appropriately titled, Say Yes, And! Two Little Words that will Transform Your Career, Organization, and Life! He notes that "yes, but" blocks action in improv and, with habitual use, it can cause many problems in life, such as:

  • "You will stay stuck where you are
  • You will miss opportunities to do, see and be more
  • You will negatively impact your relationship with everyone around you
  • You will drive away customers and prospects
  • You will increase stress"

Ouch! All the more reason to consider the alternative. So, go on, be a model of "yes, and," even if it's outside your comfort zone. Take the lead and see how others follow. As Parashar notes, "If it is worth doing, it is outside your comfort zone. Your goal is to develop a mindset where you continuously expand your comfort zone and open yourself up to greater growth progress." Imagine the positive energy, collaboration and creativity that will be unleashed.

Stephen Colbert, who also got his start in improv, understands the value of "yes, and." He even referenced it during a commencement speech at Knox College, which he closed with the following remarks:

"There was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, 'yes-and.' In this case, 'yes-and' is a verb. To 'yes-and.' I 'yes-and,' you 'yes-and,' he, she or it 'yes-ands.' Saying 'yes' begins things. Saying 'yes' is how things grow. Saying 'yes' leads to knowledge. So, say 'yes.' In fact, say 'yes' as often as you can. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. So for as long as you have the strength to, say 'yes.'"

Will this be difficult, perhaps even incredibly challenging, for some of us to make this change? Yes, and it will be worth the effort. No buts about it.
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.