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Start With a Small Yes

The outset of a difficult conversation often feels like a back-and-forth trading of position and perspective with little common ground. Here’s how to use the psychology of agreement to begin shifting that kind of positional debate to collaborative problem solving.

Lila and Tomoko had a lot of tension between them following a university re-organization. Lila’s division used to report directly to the president and it now reported to a vice president, Tomoko. To Lila, a dean, the new reporting structure felt like a demotion and a loss of power.

We were early in a conversation about how to address the tension and Lila was listing the many reasons she was unhappy with the new structure.

She said, “Here’s another one: I’ve got people who are now further down the org chart than before, yet their caliber is much higher than some of the people who remain in higher-level positions. I think I’m going to lose them to jobs elsewhere but no one’s listening to me. I don’t want to lose those folks.”

Tomoko was silent for a long moment. Then she said, “You make a good point. If we don’t have the right people on the bus it doesn’t really matter what we did with the organizational chart.”

Tomoko and Lila had just found a small yes.

The power of the small yes

A small yes is important because it can lead to more small yesses and eventually to the kinds of bigger yesses that are the building blocks of agreement.

If big yesses are the building blocks of agreement, small yesses are the mortar.

A small yes is agreement about something meaningful outside of solutions. It’s an incremental step toward greater collaboration.

Small yesses build hope one tiny step at a time, often after a period of conflict or tension where even small hope was hard to come by. They build good will. They disarm. They shift the conversation from opposition to one in which jointly held truths and perspectives are also revealed.

One small yes can lead to big results and the psychology of agreement helps us understand why.

The psychology of agreement

First, a small yes acknowledges a shared reality, our fundamentally human need to experience something in common with others. Shared realities are especially important to explore and acknowledge when those involved in a conflict want to be or have to be in ongoing relationship.

A small yes also encourages reciprocity. Reciprocity is the idea that one will receive the equivalent of what one gives; the Golden Rule (“do unto others…”) is a common example. One small yes, particularly a very meaningful one, can often trigger a reciprocal small yes from the other(s), leading to a cascade effect over the course of a conversation. It seems to be human nature to reciprocate.

A small yes sparks the potential for cognitive reappraisal, too. Cognitive reappraisal is a method for changing the emotional response to something by reinterpreting the meaning of what happened through a more neutral or positive lens. When people discover a small yes together, that small yes can begin to shift their negative view of the other(s) or the hopelessness of the situation.

How to use this idea

To tap the psychology of agreement and uncover a small yes at the front end of a difficult conversation, keep these pointers in mind:

Start with good listening. A small yes grows naturally out of a conversation in which people are listening to one another in a genuine and interested way. It’s very hard to discover a small yes without deep listening. I like to share Covey’s listening continuum and invite participants to experiment with empathic listening in small increments.

Don’t make it about solutions. Hurrying to solution is one of the reasons difficult conversations get stuck. Think of what you’re doing as starting a conversation on sound footing. Solution hunting comes later.

Don’t force it. While the idea is to uncover a small yes early in the conversation, “early” is a relative term. If participants are very angry or very reticent and aren’t yet ready to share the kinds of deeper perspectives and truths that make small yesses possible, they’ll need more time to be able to bring their curious, listening selves to the table.

Look for a meaningful yes. Agreeing about the weather is nice, but the idea of a small yes goes deeper. Look for a small yes about a shared reality that’s meaningful to the situation at hand. That shared reality could be a deep truth, perspective, or principle they see eye-to-eye on; even people who profoundly disagree with each other on one matter can usually find important factors they do agree on. Maybe, for example, they’re each deeply committed to the company’s core values. Or maybe a divorcing couple agree their youngest child will have an especially difficult time adjusting to the changes coming.

Give the small yes some breathing space. If one person has acknowledged a good point just made by another, as Tomoko did with Lila, let that percolate for a moment. Allow the chance for a reciprocal move by the acknowledged person. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But if you hurry on, you may have missed a golden moment.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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