Jennifer Thomas is a bestselling author, psychologist, speaker, consultant & apology critic

Do They Say “Yes” But Mean “No”?

Photo By Franck Nieto

Do you run into (or live with) people who say “Yes” when they mean “No”? I find this is a common habit among people who want to please others. Consider the story of Emily. She can’t stand for anyone to be mad at her. She avoids conflict like the plague. This causes a real dilemma for her when she wishes Tim would stay home with her but he wants to go out. It happened again last Tuesday: Tim had made plans to play tennis with a male friend but Emily had been hoping they would finally get an evening alone together. The words say “Yes” but the face says “No.” To avoid upsetting him, Emily weakly said “Yes.” In her heart, she was hoping Tim would choose to be with her. When he didn’t change his plans, she felt sad, lonely, and annoyed. Questions swirled in her mind:

  • Why won’t he read my thoughts and cancel his plans?
  • Does he even know or care what it does to me every time he chooses his friends over me?
  • Is this relationship even going to work?

If you are like Tim, you go off to your event, have a great time, and get blindsided by Emily’s feelings when you see her next. Having developed a full head of steam while you were away, she shows her disappointment in one or more of these ways:

  • Pouting and sulking. If you ask what is wrong, she says, “nothing.”
  • Being passive-aggressive. She won’t admit to being mad but her actions carry meaning. She slams doors or drawers with irritation. She might make passing comments or use pointed humor such as sarcasm.
  • Directly criticizing you for having gone out. This is unfair and you know it, because she gave you her approval.

How can Emily and Tim untangle this knot of mixed feelings, unclear messages, and frustration? If you find yourself being blamed for having fun or even taking care of your many obligations, try this:

What to Say:

Ask them

  • “What do you really mean when you say “Yes”?”
  • “If I take you at your word, is that really OK?”
  • “Could we make an agreement that we will be honest about how we feel?”

Say, “I won’t expect you to read my mind and you know I’m not good at reading yours. From now on, let’s agree that we are only responsible for feelings that are laid out on the table. Also, if I give you permission to do something but I later get mad at you, that’s my problem, not yours.”

Ask, “Is it a deal?”

Why This Works:

This is a simple recipe for acting with integrity: say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do. You can improve your relationships at home, at work, with family and with friends by developing an agreement with them:  You tell me how you really feel and I won’t be responsible for guessing what your body language means. After all, you can’t be expected to guess what others are thinking. To everyone, be clear about what you mean and prevent hurt feelings!

What Doesn’t Work:

Giving permission while hoping others will not take you up on it. Don’t say “Yes” too easily. If you do that, you’ll be saddled with resentment of your own making. You will damage the trust of those who are closest to you. Why? Because they will be caught in a “double bind.” That is, they will know that with you, people are  “darned if they do and darned if they don’t”. People can’t read your mind; don’t expect them to try. The responsibility to speak up lies with you.

Share Your Thoughts:

When do you have trouble saying, “No.”?


New! Leave a comment here or under any of my posts this month and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a $20 Amazon gift card from me.


2 Responses to “Do They Say “Yes” But Mean “No”?”

  1. Michelle

    When I was younger I allowed myself to play this out with my husband (then boyfriend.) I would hope that he would do something with or for me but he would make other plans and I would say “OK” even though I wasn’t OK. I would stay mad for days. I would hide in the bedroom and not talk to him. The poor guy had no idea what was going on. One day I just woke up and decided, “Why am I making MYSELF misreable?” I made a promise to myself and to him to always be honest about what I feel. We now make compromises and set priorities. If I want to sit at home and watch a movie but he has tickets to a Titans game I let him go but he makes up for it and recognizes my disappointments. I have stopped getting upset over petty things and so has he. I now believe that we communicate better than most couples. We may not always be happy to hear what the other is thinking, or agree with how they feel but we can’t work things out if we don’t know the whole truth.


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