Say Yes First

Click photo to download. Caption: Dr. Erica Brown.
Click photo to download. Caption: Dr. Erica Brown.

The exodus story is about a lot of no that ended in a great big “yes.”

Moses refused his leadership position more than once. God negotiated the terms to get Moses to “yes.” Then it was Pharaoh’s turn. He, too, began with a strong “no.” Moses negotiated over a series of plagues, and on a few occasions actually managed to change Pharaoh’s mind—but only temporarily. Pharaoh never got to “yes” and as a result, his people experienced a great big divine no in the form of waters drowning their best efforts at recapturing their slave labor. The book of Exodus records that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened 20 times. That’s a lot of “no.”

Monty Hall was born in Canada as Monte Halperin. His parents were Orthodox Jews who owned a kosher slaughterhouse. Hall got his start in radio and went on to become the producer and host of “Let’s Make a Deal.” We all remember his famous question: “Do you want what’s in the box or what’s behind curtain #3?”

He ended every show by asking for wacky items that the audience (who were often in costumes) brought with them that day, like a soft-boiled egg or a pacifier. He is also known as the name behind the probability conundrum “The Monty Hall Problem.” Hall famously said in Tim Boxer’s Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame that he likes to say “yes” first. If someone says “no” then, according to Hall, “you have to grab him and twist his arm.” Hall says he found it a lot easier just to say yes if he was free: “Do it! Be a mensch, do it, help somebody.”

Working in leadership development, I often encounter busy people overwhelmed by commitment who stretch themselves thinner and thinner because they say yes to too many things. We all recognize the “yes” disease, and many of us look in the mirror for an easy diagnosis. I usually tell people that when they say yes to something, they are invariably saying “no” to something else. Saying “yes” to attending an evening meeting may mean saying “no” to your kid’s basketball game. It’s just that you don’t articulate the “no.” It comes as a natural and silent consequence of saying yes to something else.

Over time, I’ve realized that the solution to the yes disease is not to say no. It is to say yes first but with caveats. Saying no often enough turns you into a no person. We all know the type. One recent leadership book, Multipliers, calls such people “diminishers.” They nix creative ideas before they’re fully cooked. They are often suspicious of change or innovation. They generally shut down conversations. Most people who have trouble saying “no” don’t want to become diminishers. They are multipliers by nature. Find a way to say “yes,” but under certain conditions, even if those conditions may seem impossible, because the language of “yes” is important.

One of my favorite leadership book titles is Yes Lives in the Land of No. It did for Moses. It helped him overcome his inadequacy as a speaker to become a leader whose words— and deeds—changed the lives of thousands. It does for every leader who struggles with his or her inadequacies but finally negotiates the terms to success. “No” closes the door. “Yes” opens not one door, but many. It opens windows. It opens doors. It creates possibility.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at

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