The Appropriate and Timely Use of “No,” and “But” and “Just.”

William Shakespeare wasn’t Roman or even Italian for that matter.

But he clearly understood Latin.

You should too.

As I noted to a client startup CEO, there are times when you need to say “No” and keep it very simple; a solo “No” can work perfectly.

But there are other times when words like “but” – the one at the start of this sentence – and “No” should be avoided. You’ll piss somebody off, like a customer, and they’ll take offense and/or start hunting for payback.


Those two words – “No” and “but” – along with the word “just” –  set off alarms in any English speaker’s brain. So avoid them unless you want to light things up like the storied K-Mart special.

Far better to use a stealth bomber approach and try a “Yes” followed by the word “and” to make your point, and to frame the no in a way that you can accomplish your goals whether or not the other person accepts your offer.

Here’s where Shakespeare and a little Latin comes in.

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, “judge” Balthasar accepts that Shylock has a right to exactly one pound of Antonio’s flesh and grants the exercise of that right when Shylock can do so without spilling one drop of blood.

While everyone knows the latin quid pro quo,” this stipulation – a framework if you have it – is the less common “cum hoc faciam ut” - “when you do this, I’ll do that.”

Balthazar gets his wish either way; Shylock can do the impossible, which is – well, impossible – or recognize he’s beat and not even try.

For my client, he was able to say “Yes, when you do this, I’ll do that.” If the other party does what my client asks, my client comes out ahead and everyone is hypothetically happy. If the other party doesn’t do what’s asked and they’re happy to have that choice, my client still comes out ahead by not being required to do anything.

Cum hoc faciam ut comes in handy in all sorts of ways beyond business; it works with your kids, spouse, co-workers, and the equivalent of the old PTA.

I could even use it with the white parent at my son’s really terrific grade school in Corte Madera who has become a sort of self-appointed doyen of many things diversity – and the subject of a fair amount of email back and forth with me.

A sample of her thinking: “It seems arbitrary and inconsistent to use statistics about the percentage of people of color in our community and judge our progress [toward a more inclusive and diverse school] using those metrics.” Yikes!

My pitch to her? Yes: When you start getting realistic and stop talking smack, then I’ll stop being such a pain in the hiney.

Cum hoc faciam ut; Will Shakespeare would be proud.

Guest author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better.

Merchant of Venice image courtesy of Shutterstock

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