Have you ever asked permission and received a “yes,” only to discover that it wasn’t really the yes you thought it was? This may seem like a strange question. We think of most decisions as being binary—yes or no. But while a “no” is fairly clear-cut, a yes can be more ambiguous.
Consider this common scenario: it is dinnertime, and 14-year-old Lauren asks, “Hey, Mom, can I go to the mall with Sally tonight?” Mom replies, “Okay, yes.” What has Mom just agreed to? Did they agree on how Lauren was going to get there, what time she should be home, or who else would be going? Mom just gave her teenager a “soft yes.”
We encounter soft yeses all the time, and a soft yes is only a problem if we mistakenly interpret it as a hard yes. A hard yes is clear and definitive without any conditions attached.
I’ve come across at least four variations of a soft yes:
Offering a soft yes can be dangerous, especially when given to teenage children or when it involves money. Receiving a soft yes and misinterpreting it as a hard yes can be equally dangerous because of the mismatch of expectations.
By now you might be wondering if there is a soft no. My experience is that most adults consider a no a no, especially if repeated several times, whereas children hear every no as a soft no. They learn early on how to wear down repeated response of no until they get a soft yes—which they will act on, promptly, like a hard yes.
Why can’t life be simpler? Wasn’t there a time when a yes meant yes and a no meant no? Probably not, and that is a soft no.
Pushing Your Thinking