Do you get caught in the ‘yes, but…’ trap?

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 3 May 2017
Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation
Issues covered:

Think about the last ‘difficult’ conversation you had to have with someone. Did you find yourself using some version of the phrase ‘Yes, but…’? You were trying to get your point across but they didn’t seem to be listening.

Despite all your attempts to clarify where you were coming from in a reasonable and rational way, they just didn’t seem to be hearing it.

And what did that feel like on the inside… a rising sense of impatience… ‘when are they going to get it’. A furrowed brow, a feeling that you weren’t going to be able to persuade them, frustration and irritation replacing any earlier optimism that this could be a constructive conversation.  

Words shape our attitudes and our energy – not only when we are on the receiving end of a conversation but also the words we ourselves use. And it can be at a very subtle level. The word ‘but’ with only three little letters might not seem so significant. Yet they have a powerful impact on both speaker and receiver.  

‘but’ negates whatever comes before it

The problem with ‘but’ is that it negates everything that comes before it. The dictionary definition states that ‘but’ is a conjunction used to introduce a phrase or clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned. The implication of using the word ‘but’ is that it negates everything that comes before it.

For example:
‘I really like the plan you have drafted but I think the timelines won’t work’.

What the person hears is ‘not much of a plan with timelines like that’.

This, in turn, can spark a defensive response from them. Your ‘but’ has had the effect of failing to show appreciation for their plan and instead just seeing its flaws. Gradually the dynamic between you and them becomes more polarised where each of you is trying to convince the other of the rightness of their position. ‘But’ sets up unnecessary resistance and competition between the speaker and the listener.  

Swap ‘but’ for ‘and’

Now imagine just making one simple change. Swap the ‘but’ for ‘and’.

‘I really like the plan you have drafted and I’d like to review the timelines to be sure we don’t overpromise’  

Doesn’t that feel more collaborative? Doesn’t it change how you feel towards them?
Using ‘and’ in the place of ‘but’ not only evokes less resistance on their side. It also transforms your energy and connection with them. The dynamic is no longer one of you trying to convince with increasing frustration. Instead, you are both on the same joining forces to come up with the best plan possible to address the work task.

To see the contrast played out in a fun way between ‘yes…but’ and ‘yes…and’ watch this 3 minute YouTube video:

The ‘Agreement Frame’

You can take this idea of ‘yes… and…’ a little further when you are faced with resistance to an idea from another person. This is known in Neurolinguistic Programming jargon as the ‘Agreement Frame’.

You use another version of the ‘yes…and…’ structure:

‘I agree, and… ‘or ‘I appreciate your viewpoint, and…’ and then in the second part of the sentence introduce the idea or concept you are trying to help them consider.

For example, imagine you are trying to convince someone to roll with a new system being introduced. Their reaction might be something along the lines of:

This new system is much more cumbersome to use and I don’t see how it’s going to make anything work any better’.

It’s tempting to respond something like ‘yes but… you could at least try it…’ or ‘I don’t think you understand…’ and then get into arguing back your viewpoint.

Using the ‘agreement frame’ you might say instead:
Yes, I can appreciate that it is a big change… and I’d like to support you around the changes that need to be brought about…’ and then follow that up with ‘what are the key concerns that you would like to be supported with’

The whole energy and direction of the conversation have been transformed. You are no longer pitted against each other with one trying to force your viewpoint on the other.

Performance Management Conversations

Suppose you raise concerns with an employee not being a ‘team player’ and their response is:

‘I don’t know where you’re coming from. I think I am a team player – it’s the rest of the team that has the problem’

How might you use the agreement frame to respond to them in a way that shifts from a defensive to a co-operative mindset? You are trying to swap a ‘yes…but…’ to a ‘yes…and…’, where the second part of the sentence is directed towards the desired outcome.

Here are some options:

‘I agree that ‘team player’ can mean lots of things…and I’d like to explore with you how you see it and how we can get to a place where there is greater co-operation between everyone on the team’


‘I appreciate that you see it differently…and let me explain what I mean and how I can support you and the rest of the team to work more collaboratively’

Try this yourself

Over the coming week watch for the number of times you use the ‘yes…but…’ phrase in your communication with others. Then experiment with substituting for one of the ‘yes…and…’ approaches described above and be amazed by how it can transform the dynamic between you and them! 

This article is correct at 03/05/2017

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation

The main content of this article was provided by Mary Rafferty. Contact telephone number is +00 (353) 71 9651966 or +00 (353) 86 8252423 or email

View all articles by Mary Rafferty