The Shortest Words — “Yes” and “No” — Are Those which Need the Most Thought

“Yes” and “No.” Two short words. Short but significant. They are like a railway switch that determines which way one goes. One student tells a companion, “Let’s steal that old lady’s purse!” If the companion says, “Yes,” he may be headed for a life of crime. If he says, “No,” he may be on the path to sound judgement, good decisions, and a bright future.

That’s the way it’s always been, so it’s not surprising that more than 2,500 years ago Pythagoras said, “The oldest, shortest words — “Yes” and “No” — are those which require the most thought.” And this theme has often been repeated. For example, in the seventeenth century, the Spanish philosopher and writer Baltasar Gracian wrote, “Yes and No are soon said, but give much to think over.”

Interestingly, unless we have the power to say “No”, we’ll never have the power to say “Yes.” After all, unless I say “No” to all all-night partying, I will be unable to say “Yes” to attending night school.

The Power of “Yes”

Every creation, every invention, every innovation came about because someone said “Yes.” The universe itself is one gigantic “Yes.” “Yes” to life; “Yes” to all that is, such is the power of “Yes.”

Far more becomes achievable when we remove the obstacle of fear, for when we become courageous, anything becomes possible. A dramatic example is the changes sweeping across the Middle East because of people saying “Yes” to freedom and “No” to oppression.

We cannot take advantage of the opportunities that come our way unless we say “Yes.” Whenever I am asked if I can do a seminar or speech on a particular subject, I immediately say, “Yes.” After doing so, I then figure out how to prepare and present the material. The important point is, had I not said “Yes,” I wouldn’t have looked for solutions and found answers.

Although Heather was 55, she had never been married. She worked in a lab and had little contact with people, and immediately after work she would head straight home to look after her invalid mother. The university she worked for had a budget crisis and had to let go of some of their high paid staff. Heather was one of them.

I was the manager of a department in a retail store at the time and advertised for some help. After losing her job, Heather lost no time looking for work. She came to see me. I loved her because she was bright, trustworthy, and kind-hearted, but I didn’t expect her to take the job because all I could offer her was minimum wages. Yet, Heather said, “Yes.” Little did Heather realize was she was saying “Yes” to.

Unlike a lab, she was now working in a busy environment, meeting more people in a week than she used to in a year. One of the customers she met was Satoshi, a Japanese widower, who was as kind and generous as she was. He took a liking to her and asked her out to dinner. Heather explained that she didn’t want to leave her invalid mom at home unattended. “No problem,” said Satoshi, “instead of wasting time traveling by bus, I’ll drive you home; we’ll pick up your mom, and then drive to a restaurant where we will all dine together.”

Love blossomed. When Satoshi proposed, Heather said she couldn’t move away from her mom. “No problem,” replied Satoshi, “I just bought the condo next door to mine for your mother. Now we will be neighbors and you can spend as much time with her as you would like.”

Long ago, Heather had given up hope of falling in love, getting married, and living a luxurious life. But her life was magically transformed because she said “Yes.” She is not the only one who succeeded by willing to do more for less. For instance, Peter Aceto, CEO of ING Direct Canada, had this to say, “I’ve put a lot of time in personal development, taking jobs I didn’t necessarily enjoy or want to do or positions where I was going to earn less money so that I could get a better sense of how they worked. They’ve been some of the toughest personal decisions I’ve ever made, but also probably the most rewarding.”

Heather and Peter Aceto said “Yes.” Will you? What will you discover, become, and have when you say “Yes” more often?

The Power of “No”

To lead fulfilling and happy lives, we also need to learn how to say “Yes” to saying, “No.” After all, saying “No” to one thing allows us to say “Yes” to another. Here are some examples. Saying “No” to apple pie is saying “Yes” to a healthy diet. Saying “Yes” to exercise is saying “No” to poor health. Saying “No” to smoking is saying “Yes” to good health. And John C. Maxwell of makes a good point, “Learn to say ‘No’ to the good so you can say ‘Yes’ to the best.”

Some people try to take advantage of us by making us feel guilty if we don’t agree to their request. So, we need to defend our rights by saying, “No.” Remember, saying “No” to manipulators is saying “Yes” to you. Besides, when you say “Yes” to things you don’t enjoy, you’re saying “No” to things you love.

How to say no

Because of our conditioning, we often find it difficult to turn people down, even when their requests are unreasonable and detrimental. Here are a few steps you can take to make saying “No” easier.

1. First decide what you want to say “Yes” to. If, for instance, you say “Yes” to a happy family life, then it’s “No” to carousing every night with your office buddies. If it’s “Yes” to night school, then it’s “No” to overtime and late night TV. If it’s “Yes” to saving for a vacation cruise, then it’s “No” to eating out every night.

2. When someone asks you to do something you’d rather not do, you don’t have to answer right away. You can buy some time by saying, “I need time to think about it (or review my commitments). I’ll get back to you.” This is helpful because if you answer too quickly, you may cave in to the pressure. But by taking your time, you’ll have a cooling off period and the opportunity to build your courage

3. It’s easier to refuse when the first word out of your mouth is “No.” For example, “No. Sorry, Bob, I can’t help you at this time.”

4. It’s easier to agree when it is on your terms. For instance, Will says, “Harry can you help me move on Saturday? We can make a day of it, and I’ll treat you to dinner.”  And Harry replies, “Sure, I can help you in the morning, but I have to quit at 12 noon sharp because I have an afternoon commitment.”

5. It’s easier when you are honest, for when you’re telling the truth you have nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Just tell it like it is:

“Sorry, I don’t enjoy that kind of job.”
“Sorry, that doesn’t work for me.”
“Sorry, I’m not at ease with that.”
“Sorry, I’m too busy at this time.”
“Sorry, I need to pay more attention to my personal life.”

6. Make it easier for the person you’re refusing to understand you’re serious. Do this by making your body language and tonality match your verbal message. That is, stand straight, speak confidently, and make eye contact while saying a gentle but firm “No.”


1. If you recognize someone is trying to manipulate you, be compassionate, for they are coping the only way they know how. By “be compassionate” I mean accept them and don’t grow angry or resentful. But neither should you give in to unreasonable requests. Don’t enable helpless behaviour. If you refuse to help, they will be forced to fend for themselves, which will help them become independent.

2. Although it is never necessary to give a reason for your refusal, a brief explanation can help to deflect resentment from you to the cause. For example, when you say, “I don’t have any openings in my schedule,” it will help deflect resentment from you to your schedule.

3. As suggested in the above point, you never have to explain your refusal. It is your life and you have a right to live it as you chose. When you respect your own right to privacy, others will come to respect it too.

4. Time spent devoted to others is time not spent devoted to you. So, always measure the importance of what you do for others against what you cannot do for yourself. Here’s an example. Tom and Betty plan to paint some rooms of their house this weekend. But Tom’s friend, Al, calls and asks Tom to help him move this weekend. If Tom says “Yes,” Betty will be disappointed, and if Tom says “No,” Al will be disappointed. Before Tom answers, he needs to consider which relationship is more important.

In conclusion, if you want to say “Yes” to a successful and happy life, the formula is a simple two-part process.

1. Develop the courage and self-discipline to say “Yes” and “No” to others and yourself.

2. Say “No” to whatever harms or hinders you and “Yes” to whatever serves or suits you.