During my freshman year of college, I took an elective – Automotive Steering and Alignment – that, itself, had no impact on my later educational path and career. But the instructor, as all good instructors should, had a tremendous impact on me and the rest of my life, stemming from a single encounter in a lesson about tool usage.

He was showing us how to use the largest torque wrench I had ever seen… which was, admittedly, the only torque wrench I had ever seen. When I naively asked why we should use that specific and expensive type of wrench, he said something I’ve kept with me throughout the course of my life, education, and career:

“The right tool doesn’t cost money, it makes money; but the wrong tool not only costs money now, it costs money later, too.”

Over time, the meaning of that statement has changed, as my perspective has changed, often taking on a more metaphorical significance, particularly when applied to engagements I have with other practitioners and leaders. I often catch myself recalling the wisdom of the phrase’s intent whenever I see or hear both good and bad coaching and leadership practices.

Words are tools, and the effective use of the right tools can have good results, just as misuse of them could cost both us and the client, now and later. So, it doesn’t surprise me that a significant number of coaching articles I’ve seen lately have centered around leaders and coaches finding ways to disagree with their team members or clients, without saying “no.”

Cue the rise of “Yes, and…” as the proxy for “no” in coaching practice and leadership engagements. It seems we’re borrowing from the art of improvisational acting, which makes sense in a lot of ways, because the art and practice of coaching and leadership can be highly improvisational, too.

(Improvisational actors use the “Yes, and…” technique as an acceptance of the scene the actors are building, by adding to it without contradicting. It’s an accepted method of maintaining momentum, irrespective of plausibility.)

However, consider an experience my friend, Amanda, had with her supervisor a few years ago. Amanda, as a newly hired but experienced medical provider in a mid-sized suburban clinic, noted that her patients were being visited multiple times during the appointment by medical assistants to take vitals, notes, history, and other administrative necessities, all before they were seen by their actual provider.

To Amanda, this seemed not only redundant and inefficient, but it frustrated her patients, many of whom were agitated by the process. Amanda felt this affected the quality of care she could deliver, and that which the patient should receive.

So, she met with her supervisor to talk about it, and prepared an idea of how they could improve the system, which was a variation of how a previous clinic she worked in conducted their patient intake.

Amanda recalled the experience to me: “She didn’t interrupt me, but I could see the disagreement all over her face. I totally expected her to reject the idea, and we would just move on, business as usual.”

After an initial pause, the supervising physician smiled, and then said, “Yes, and…,” followed by a reason why the system is set up that way, why it’s better than any other intake process they’ve used in the past, and why they weren’t changing it.

“It felt gross,” she said, “like she needed to placate me first, instead of just being honest with me the whole time. I expected disagreement, but not duplicity. I trusted her less from that point on and was completely distracted by it for the rest of the day.” And they did move on, business as usual.

We’ve all felt that before, when someone uses verbal trickery to say one thing but mean another. It’s probable that we’ve done it ourselves from time to time, particularly with our children, and possibly with our clients, maybe to save face – ours or theirs.

But that’s the crux of the matter: As coaches and leaders, we might think we’re sparing feelings or keeping an interaction moving, but that short term gain could potentially be harming the relationship long term. We think we’re saving “money” in the moment by using the wrong tool. Almost certainly it’s costing us something, both now and later.

One thing it could cost is our authenticity – which Amanda named – and our clients can likely feel it. The rush to protect feelings might have the opposite effect, as our clients might feel like we can’t trust them, or that we can’t be honest with them.

It’s perfectly acceptable to find ways to say “no” without using the word; and “yes, and…” has its place, too. As coaches and leaders, our ability to navigate the complexity of language and how it affects our clients’ motivation and engagement is one of our strengths. But let’s be sure we’re keeping our authenticity intact – and getting the right results both now and later – by using the right words for the situation at hand.

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