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Do You Agree With “No, I Agree”?

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Do You Agree With "No, I Agree"?

Why does my manager say “No, I agree” – when she agrees with me? It doesn’t make any sense to start with a “no.”

This question from a seminar participant reminded me that I have meant to discuss this communication conundrum for some time.

The above manager who confuses my seminar participant is using what I call a “contradictory phrase.” This is a term frequently used to describe an expression where the first part seems to contradict the second, as in “organized chaos” or “original copies.” This type of wording is sometimes called an oxymoron, and is often intentionally used for humor or to create rhetorical effect. Examples include “pretty ugly” or “sweet sorrow.”

However, this article is not about crafting such wording for literary effect. This is about the specific use of “no” as the first part of a phrase, followed by wording that seems contradictory. As illustrated above, this can occur when someone agrees with you by saying, “No, I agree.” It also pops up when someone tells you that you are correct by saying, “No, you’re right.” Other examples include, “No, I’m certain,” “No, you’re fine,” and “No, I’m sure.” 

This is a kind of verbal idiosyncrasy that many people don’t notice – but once they become aware of its use, it can drive them crazy.

So why do people use these types of phrases? Based upon my research, I have come up with three reasons:

Sometimes these phrases are said sarcastically, such as on this ecard that’s part of the humorous “rotten” series: No, you’re right. Let’s do it the dumbest way possible because it’s easier for you. 

Or, the person says “no” as part of an unspoken addition to a comment, such as “No, I don’t disagree with that. I agree.” The other person is supposed to know what was left unsaid and fill in the blanks. And sometimes in casual conversation that will happen. But not always.

And sometimes people just say “no” as a matter of course. There are some people who have a tendency to respond negatively to any comment or request – at least at first. I admit that I did that when my son was young. Saying “no” immediately gave me a second to evaluate what he wanted, before I (sometimes) agreed to his request. I found myself making comments such as, “No. [slight pause] You can sleep over at Max’s house.” When I realized how often I was saying things like that, I stopped saying “no” and replaced it with the phrase “Let me think about it.”

Other solutions to eliminating these types of contradictory phrases include:

  • Eliminate the “no.” Simply state your response. Instead of saying, “No, you’re right,” say, “You’re right.” It’s a more positive comment.
  • Explain the unspoken.  Instead of saying, “No, you’re fine,” you would clarify,“No, I don’t think you’re inappropriately dressed. You’re fine.”
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