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10/19/2012 03:14 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2015

When To Say Yes: What To Ask Before You Agree To Something

By Leigh Newman

One of the most uplifting words in the English language can be one of the most upsetting when it's said without considering the consequences. Columnist Leigh Newman weighs in.

1. What Will I Have To Give Up To Say Yes?
If you're doing a favor, the answer to the question is pretty darn obvious. You're giving your money, time or energy to someone else, which means you'll have less for yourself.

But what about when a friend suggests doing a favor for you? In that blazing moment of joy that comes when another human being offers you free help, you still need to pause and consider. Because even if that person wants to mow your 10-acre lawn for free (clearly, a dream sequence), you will have to give up something. It might be control: Maybe the person chops off the grass at 3 inches high when you prefer 2 inches, or uses pesticides you don't like. It might be freedom, like the person needing you to be home on Saturdays to let him into the garage. In my example, of course, no matter what the cost is, your answer is yes, followed by multiple slobbering thank-yous. In others, little issues like freedom and control may be big fat deal breakers.

2. Does This Option Have An Expiration Date?
All too often, I feel like I have to provide an answer right away, because if I don't get that "Yes!!!!" in immediately, the job offer will be given to somebody else, or the opportunity -- to say, get a free haircut -- will shrivel up and disappear... forever. A more honest way to phrase this is that fear is running the show, and nobody makes the right decision based on that emotion.

As with almost every single thing on earth -- save for candy apples at state fairs, which you need to agree to immediately as a matter of principle -- waiting can radically improve the calmness and quality of your reply. Furthermore, most opportunities do have a shelf life that's longer than you think, allowing you to weigh your options, get advice, listen to your intuition and lie there in bed at night arguing with yourself until one side wins -- ensuring that your "Yes!!!!" the next morning comes with genuine exclamation points.

3. What's The Big Risk, And What's The Tiny Risk?
You want to leave your job and start your own company. The big risk is what happens if you don't make enough income, lose your house and have to move in with your parents in Toledo. The big risk will appear as a woman in hot pants screaming through your brain with her hair on fire. What she is doing is distracting you from the tiny risk, the one you haven't thought about yet. For example, what if you do start your company, and you make enough money, but you have to work 22 hours a day and never get to go out on a date until you retire at age 83?

4. What Do You Really Want?
Some of us occasionally say yes to one thing because we really think it might lead to another thing. Let's pretend you have a friend named Greta, who lives in Germany. She's got a wonderful 17-year-old daughter, who needs a place to stay in America for the year, and you agree to it. You tell yourself that you're interested in cultural exchange and that you adore young people. But in some dark, less-generous corner of your mind, you're thinking, "If I do this, maybe Greta will let me stay in her house in Berlin next summer." Should you force yourself to look at that bit of thinking, you might just want to change your response to "Okay, Greta, I'll house your only daughter, but I'd like to cut a deal with you about next summer." Which may be a little more direct than you usually play things. But it just might also save your relationship with her, if not improve it. Everybody loves honesty, even people with homes in major European capitals.

5. What Does The Asker Really Want?
You're not the only one who might not want to face up to what's really at stake in questions of yea or nay. The guy that offers to drive you to work may just want to give you a ride and save on gas. But he may also want you to go on a date with him or get you to take his side in some kind of officewide political showdown. Hidden motivations are not like buried treasure. You don't need a map or a compass or a shovel or a degree in pirate studies. You just need to take a long, thorough look -- and be willing to turn down something you want because it's just a cover for a host of things you don't.

6. Would I Do This For Myself?
I'm not Mahatma Gandhi or even Glinda the Good Witch, but I don't mind doing really difficult things for people I care about. I have used up all my precious frequent flier miles and flown myself out to Hawaii for 36 hours to be there for an old, scared friend, who was getting married. I have paid a babysitter to watch my kids so that I could go watch the children of a distraught, overcommitted widower neighbor, who needed a break. But at my lowest points -- I mean mornings where bending down to put on fuzzy socks feels like a hard-core, hot-room yoga stretch session -- would I even consider hiring a babysitter to give myself a night off or flying to Hawaii to repair myself on the sands of a glorious big-chain hotel? I think we all know the answer to this question -- and it is not yes. And that is not acceptable.

7. What Would My Mother Say If She Were Here?
Also known as: Are you being an idiot? For instance, this applies to when you say yes to the cigarette ("It's just one! I'm tipsy!") or to the date with Mr. Married with Kids ("He's so lonely... and sexy... and almost separated") or to the eating contest (which really happened, and I can't remember the logic behind it except that my husband dared me and that I felt some childish impulse to show off and try to out-scarf six grown men at a table overflowing with nachos, french fries and burgers). The one thing about your mother, father, Grandpa Joe or whoever it was that raised you is that they all know how to say no to the things that will end up hurting you or making you very, very ill. Furthermore, they know you. They'll be the first person to encourage you to say yes to those things that so effectively bring you significant happiness -- like oatmeal for breakfast, even when you don't have time.

8. Is This An If You Give A Mouse A Cookie Situation?
In this popular children's picture book, a mouse comes over, asks for a cookie, then a glass of milk to wash it down, then a mirror to examine his milk mustache and so on. This behavioral pattern, however, is based on real life. If you give a real mouse a cookie, that mouse will send out an all-points broadcast about the free dessert buffet over at your house, leading his cousins, aunts and uncles to come scurrying directly toward your kitchen. In effect, you said "sure!" to the mouse when he sniffed the air near your cookie. Let's learn from this metaphorical rodential mistake. If you consent to doing one thing for a particular person, will an avalanche of other requests follow?

9. Would This Person Say Yes To Me If It Were The Other Way Around?
Situations that apply to this query include party invitations, embarrassing tasks such as singing out loud or wearing a costume, and any situation requiring an emotional risk, like love or courage. If the answer to your question is yes, then the answer to the asker's question is yes. Because in such cases of double affirmatives, you're not doing anything for anyone, you're doing it with that person. Another word for this is friendship -- the real kind.

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