Communicating Yes No I Don’t Know

Key points

  • We need different communication skills for each part of Yes No I Don’t Know.
  • To communicate yes we can use encouraging and affirmative phrases and body language.
  • When we’re nervous, we can mix positive and negative signals—there’s nothing wrong with this, though it can be confusing.
  • The person who is hearing yes is responsible for checking that the other person is really saying yes.
  • We can feel bad about saying no, but saying no is even more important than saying yes. 
  • It’s easy to send mixed signals with a no, but it’s better to be clear—and the other person is responsible for managing their emotions in response.
  • If you’re not certain you’re hearing a yes, assume it’s a no.
  • Persistence can easily turn into harassment.
  • There’s nothing wrong with not knowing what you want and needing time.

 

How to communicate Yes No I Don’t Know

The Field Model looks simple, but to really make it work we need good communication.

But we have all sorts of combinations of verbal and non-verbal, subtle and obvious communication which can make things challenging.

 

A table showing examples of communication: obvious verbal is “Do you want to kiss?”; obvious non-verbal is “Kiss”, Subtle verbal is “You have nice lips.”, Subtle non-verbal is “Meaningful look”.

 

To make things even more complicated, it’s in high-stakes relationship decisions—where it’s most important that we are in agreement—that we are most likely to try to be subtle and obscure because we don’t want to expose ourselves or scare the other person. This means it’s often in the most important decisions where we are at greatest risk of misunderstanding each other.

So how do we communicate effectively for each type of decision?

 

Saying yes

How do we let someone know we’re saying yes? Or work out if somebody else is saying yes?

The ideal is something called “enthusiastic consent”, which just means making it really obvious to somebody that you are saying yes.

Enthusiasm can be subjective (one person’s enthusiasm might look like another’s disinterest), but there are some phrases that are pretty unambiguous:

  • Yes, please!
  • That sounds great!
  • I’d love to!
  • I’d really like that!
  • Definitely!

 

There are also non-verbal cues that can convey a yes:

  • Leaning in, getting closer
  • Eye contact 
  • Physical contact
  • Matching behaviour
  • Taking turns to lead
  • Smiling with the eyes, beaming

 

Saying no but including yes signals

If we’re nervous and trying to avoid confrontation, we can try to soften our no by mixing it with other signals.

For example, somebody tries to kiss you and even though you like them, right now you’re nervous and you want them to back off, but don’t want to make a big deal out of it so you lean aside, laugh, pat them on the arm and say, “Should you be doing that?”. That response is not as clear and straightforward as saying, “No, don’t,” and then having a conversation about what’s going on for you.

Ideally the other person will be sensitive and attentive enough to know that something’s not quite right and check in with you in some other way, but depending on the history and context they could also be genuinely confused—so it helps to be clear even if you’re nervous.

That said, in the Field Model, responsibility sits with the person pushing for a yes to make sure that the other person is a yes too. You’re not at fault if you’re ambiguous or confusing, the other person should be seeking clarity.

So you’re not at fault if you’re ambiguous or confusing, but if the other person is confused it can help to be clear.

 

Making sure it’s a yes

A man and a woman in close proximity. He asks her, 'Do you want to keep going'?

 

Yes is not the absence of no. To agree, someone needs to actually communicate a positive yes, whether verbally or non-verbally, obviously or subtly.

But this means it’s the responsibility of the person who heard yes to be really sure that the other person actually said yes.

If the person has been super-obvious, then that might be enough for you to proceed.

But if you’re not 100% certain, a simple check-in can be enough:

  • Really?
  • Are you sure?
  • Yeah?

 

If you’re still not sure, if you’re in any doubt at all, err on the side of assuming no. Everyone has regrets, but for important relationship decisions it’s better to live with the regret of imagined opportunities that you missed, than with the regret of hurt that you actually caused.

In this situation, if you just say to somebody, “It doesn’t seem like you’re into the idea,” and then you ease off without being mean or sulky, then you give them the freedom to back away, or to try and engage with you differently, if that’s what they want.

 

Changing your mind

Even once you’ve said yes, you might still change your mind. Both people in a decision need to be sensitive to second thoughts, and the signals that go with them:

  • Actually…
  • You know what…
  • This doesn’t feel the way I thought it would.
  • This isn’t working.
  • This doesn’t feel right.

 

Saying no

A woman at the gym turns to say a clear no to someone, before looking forward again. "No... thank you."

 

The problem with no is that sometimes people really don’t like to hear it, and that means sometimes people really don’t like to say it.

But no is even more important than yes, so it’s really important to be comfortable saying it, and to be comfortable with hearing it and managing your emotions in response.

There are lots of ways to say no:

  • No thank you.
  • No thanks.
  • Not interested.
  • Do you mind if we don’t?
  • I’d rather not.
  • That doesn’t work for me right now.
  • Sounds interesting but maybe not right now.
  • Eww…
  • I don’t feel like it.
  • I’m not feeling it.
  • That’s a hard no.

 

The Hard No

If someone really isn’t getting it, then say, “That’s a hard no.” A hard no means you’re not playing, you’re not in any doubt: it’s a no, and you want the other person to respect that and back off.

A hard no also means an end to the field model/decision making process – no is no, and don’t ask again.

 

You can also use body language:

  • Shaking your head
  • Looking away
  • Turning away
  • Moving away
  • Putting up hands
  • Making physical barriers with things like bags or cushions
  • Packing up your stuff
  • Doing something else
  • Going still 

 

A woman and a man on a couch, the guy leans right in to kiss the woman and she pulls back and asks what he is doing.

 

Sending signals that mean no when you want to say yes

Sometimes our own nervousness or shyness makes us send signals that communicate no when we really want to say yes.

For example, someone you like makes eye contact with you, and you’re pleased but you look away because you’re nervous, which makes them think you don’t like them, so they go talk to someone else.

If you’re frustrating yourself, you can try to connect with the other person again or try to be more receptive in future—but don’t beat yourself up too much.

If someone’s seriously interested in you, they will probably give you more than one chance to make a connection.

 

Reinforcing vs mixing signals

A no is clearer when words, body language and tone all reinforce each other:

  • “No.” *holds up hand*
  • “No.” *shakes head and purses lips*
  • “No.” *moves away*

 

If the words, body language or tone are different, then it can be confusing:

  • “No.” *playfully*
  • “No.” *moving in closer*
  • “No.” *grinning*

 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being ambiguous or playful—people in good relationships do this all the time.

But if it’s an important decision or neither person knows each other well, then mixing signals can reduce the quality of our communication and it’s better to be clear.

 

Reading a no vs looking for a clear yes

You can’t assume that because somebody hasn’t said no, that they don’t want to say no.

While it’s helpful for the other person to be super clear, it’s not actually their responsibility to make their no 100% clear to you—it’s your responsibility to make sure you 100% understand their yes.

So it’s better to assume it’s a no, unless you’re getting a clear yes.

If you’re really not sure you understand the other person, then it’s fine to double check, but also too much checking can become a form of harassment.

 

Persistence vs harassment

A man and a woman in bed, the woman reaches for a movie and tries to convince the man to watch it with her.

 

If you get a no, is it okay to ask again? Maybe/maybe not, it depends on how the other person feels about it.

They might see your persistence as adorable or reassuring.

Equally they might find your persistence creepy, irritating or claustrophobic.

And if you’re not the only person in their life not taking no for an answer, then your questions are probably even more draining.

Even if you try to be sensitive, how can you be sure the person isn’t getting annoyed, but just being polite to you to avoid awkwardness?

Persistence very quickly turns into harassment, and it’s the person being asked who decides whether or not it’s harassment, not the asker.

 

Saying I Don’t Know

A man and a woman on the couch, the guy looks up and asks, "I don't know.... Do I?"

 

There are lots of ways you can say you don’t know:

  • I don't know
  • I'm not sure
  • I need to think about this
  • I don't know what to do
  • I'm in the Maybe Zone
  • I need you to leave me alone to think about this
  • I don’t want to talk about this now.

 

It can be confusing for the other person if they don’t know what’s wrong. You may want to describe what's happening in your head:

  • I've never done this before
  • I don't know what it will be like
  • I've tried something similar and didn't like it
  • I can see this would be good,  but that would be bad...
  • I want to X, but I am worried that Y… 

 

It can help to be open and honest about what you want, your feelings, what you’re worried about.

Your concerns are never wrong or stupid. You shouldn’t apologise, feel that they are incorrect, silly, or something to be ashamed or guilty about.

If you’re being open and honest, and the other person is trying to make you feel bad about your ambivalence, then that’s a red flag for the relationship.

 

How to tell if someone is in the Maybe Zone

For whatever reason, someone may not be clear that they aren’t sure what they want, and that they need more time or space.

  • Perhaps they don’t want to hurt your feelings, or just don’t know what to do. 
  • Perhaps they feel pressured to make a decision and don’t understand how the rules of the Maybe Zone can help them relax and take their time.

 

Either way, until you have a clear yes, then it’s your job to be on the lookout for any signs of doubt or reservation.

This could be any of the Maybe Zone phrases listed above, or body language that is unsure:

  • Shrugs
  • Sighs
  • Pauses
  • Being lost in thought
  • Looking a bit stuck
  • Not making eye contact
  • Changing the subject