What to Say When You Can’t Say ‘Yes’

Beth Haiken

When I first started media training executives I was convinced that the most useful phrase in PR was “What I can tell you is...,” but over the years I’ve become convinced that the two most useful phrases in PR are “I wish I could tell you [yes] but I can’t” and “Let’s do this.” I learned these not from any of my communications mentors but from the school nurse at my high school, and almost every day I am struck again by how smart she was.

One night I came home from babysitting and found my mom stumbling around the kitchen and slurring her words. The next day she apologized and said that she had taken some cold medicine and then had a glass of wine and that it was a bad combination.

I was only 14, but I wasn’t stupid, so I described to the school nurse how my mother had behaved and the explanation she had given me and asked, “Do those two things make sense together?” Mrs. Van Heise looked at me kindly and said, “I wish I could tell you that they do, but they don’t.” Then she said, “Let’s talk about some ideas that might help you.”

Those words have stuck with me over the years, not just because they were the beginning of a discussion about the counseling and Alateen services that ultimately would change my life but because it ranks as the best idea I’ve yet found for what to say when you cannot say yes to a question or suggestion.

As communicators, we face this challenge often—when a client suggests we pitch a story that we know isn’t exciting enough to grab a journalist’s attention, when a CEO asks if it’s a good idea to launch a Facebook page when consumers don’t care for the company’s new product, when a junior colleague wants to throw down for a raise and you know it’s just not the right time but you can’t tell them why. It’s hard to say no when you know the answer will be disappointing to a friend or colleague, but sometimes it’s necessary.

I’m not a psychologist, but I think this combination of phrases works because it combines empathy with honesty, followed by a redirect. If you diagrammed it, it would look a little like a line dance—one step forward, a half step back, grab your partner’s hand, turn to the right and take two steps forward together.

“I wish I could tell you that (the explanation makes sense, the time is right, it’s a fantastic story)” puts you in the questioner’s corner, aligning you with them and thus making the bad news more palatable. The “but I can’t” that follows is the honesty part of the equation. By stating this clearly and directly and without apology, you create a bit of distance and maintain your credibility.

The third phrase is critical because, as one of my first bosses told me, you never want to bring someone a problem without offering an idea for a solution at the same time. This is when you grab your questioner’s hand and turn them in a new direction, focusing on what you can do rather than what you can’t: Let’s schedule a brainstorm to surface some new ideas for a story; let’s talk about some research to find out where consumers’ heads are; let’s grab a cup of coffee and sit down with the job description one level up from where you are now and make a game plan to get you there. In doing this you realign yourself with your questioner, ensuring you’ll move forward as a team.

Next time you have to say no to someone you want to keep on your side, give this a try—and thanks, Mrs. Van Heise.

Beth Haiken is a senior VP at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. She has a strong background in financial services public relations, strategic and crisis communications, internal communications and corporate identity/brand management. You can email her at  beth.haiken@ogilvy.com