The danger of the answer formulation “No, but…”

I underwent an epiphany a few years ago about how to respond to a question about what you and your organization can do to meet a request.

Many many times, you will be asked “Can you do/deliver X?” when “X” represents a solution or capability which you either do not possess, or which you possess, but incompletely or in a different form.

An instinctively honest person will often react to that sort of a question by saying to themselves “hmmm, we do not really do or deliver X”, but maybe we could if we can figure out how to”. So then they will formulate an answer that goes like this:

“No, but <insert explanation of what we can do here>”

This is, in truth and semantic terms, a perfectly correct answer.

The problem is that the people listening to the answer on the other side of the table are going to hear the big bad word NO first.

One thing we know about communications, is that if a falsehood is uttered, and then subsequently corrected by the person who uttered the falsehood, many people will not even notice that the falsehood was corrected. They may see it, or hear about it, but they tend to remember the original falsehood long after it has been corrected or debunked. This is the origin of the famous quote “a lie can be half way around the world while the truth is still putting its pants on”. While the origin of the quote is in dispute, the truth of the quote is fairly well-known. As a species, we are vulnerable to “first thing heard on a topic” preferential memory.

So, returning to our person who was asked “can you do X?” and who replied honestly and truthfully “No, but we can do <something else that they hope will be equivalent to X”. There is a good chance that the people on the other side of the table heard the response as “NO…” and then tuned out all or part of the rest of the response.

There is one situation that modifies this dynamic, where the question is a bad-faith question i.e. one designed to elicit the answer No. I have been in meetings where questions like this were asked, and we knew in advance that the question was a rhetorical trap, laid in the certain knowledge that we would have to respond No.  A scenario like this probably requires advance preparation to determine how the entire team on your side should respond. Sometimes the appropriate response is to refuse to even engage on the question, on the grounds that it is a transparent rhetorical bad-faith tactic. I have seen leaders respond “I am not answering that question because you and I know this is BS” in an attempt to put the other team on the defensive. Other responses may be required.

Leaving bad-faith rhetorical traps out of the discussion…here is what people need to do instead of “No…but…”.

The answer formulation needs to be re-sequenced to something like this:

“<restatement of understanding of question>+ <statement of your current capability> + <statement of suggested solution that you can deliver or statement of willingness to explore a deliverable solution>”

Restating the understanding of the question has no downside. Sometimes the statement by the questioner was poorly or incorrectly formulated (I have seen this from leaders at all levels), and re-stating it results in a qualification or change. Best case, the people on the other side of the table will nod vigorously “Yes”, and you improved your credibility by showing that you understand what they are requesting.

Stating your capability and then explaining how you think you can meet the requirement shows you are answering in constructive good faith to meet the requirement.

And…the word NO is no longer present in your response. The positive psychological impact of the absence of No cannot be over-estimated.

NOTE – This is especially true for cultures where No is a very bad word, for social standing reasons.



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