The Law of 3 YESes

DBT-C, EnglishSupersensers / By Francheska Perepletchikova

Our sense of safety demands control. This is one of the reasons why we say “No” much more frequently than “Yes” in interacting with other people. “No” and “But” are words of control. However, replying with a “No” frequently just results in an argument, as it triggers anger and defensiveness. Arguing prevents us from getting what we want and hurts our relationships with others and self. So instead of forcing others to comply or insist on our point of view, we need to use manipulation. One of the very effective tools of manipulation is the “Law of 3 YESes” It is important to note that we do need to say “No” sometimes. Nothing to extreme! For example, punishment is a “No” strategy. If a child is running into traffic, we obviously will scream “No! Stop!” Saying “No” is also a therapeutic strategy, when a person gets stuck, and we need to help them get unstuck by pushing them out of balance, so rebalancing can occur on a more functional level. In DBT, this strategy is called “irreverence” of the type where we directly confront a dysfunctional behavior. However, strategies based on saying “No” can only be effective when they are grounded on a foundation of acceptance and reinforcement. If we constantly say “no” then one more “no” will not make a difference. For that “No!” to work, it needs to have a shock value that can only be achieved when a person is used to mostly hearing “yes, yes, yes.”

There are three types of YESes:

  1. “YES as a yes”
    This type is used when we indeed agree. This includes approving, reinforcing, appreciating, confirming, complimenting, as well as apologizing. “Great job!” “Yes, I think that this is a wonderful idea!” “Yes, I made a mistake, I am so sorry.” Communication of agreement strengthens relationships, creates a safe space, and increases trust and motivation to continue to perform the reinforced response.
  2. “YES as I understand and do not agree”
    This type is called validation. Validation is a communication of acceptance, and it is the opposite of criticism and judgement. Validation is used when we did not like what happened and want to decrease chances of this response happening in the future. When we like what happened, then we need to use reinforcement, not validation. In validation, we do not approve of another person’s response, we just communicate that we understand why it happened. “Hey, I would also be angry if someone was mean to me!” Validation decreases emotional arousal, strengthens relationships, creates a safe space, teaches effective communications, teaches accurate labeling of internal experiences, decreases shame, promotes self-validation and lays down a foundation for change.
  3. “YES as a NO”
    This type includes two strategies – extending and unorthodox/humorous irreverence. Both strategies use irony to convey the opposite to what is being said. “No” is being communicated without saying it directly.
    • In extending, a person’s statement about a situation is taken literary and more seriously
      than the person intended. A reply is extended so far that it is impossible to believe that
      an agreement has been reached.

A classic therapeutic example of extending comes from Marsha Linehan, the developer
of DBT:

Patient: “I am going to kill myself!”
Therapist: “Are you firing me?”

Examples from my work with children, teens and their parents:

– “I do not have time to do homework! I am flunking out of school!”
– “I see. Should I help you find a job?”
– “I cannot live in this house anymore! I cannot stand you constantly nagging me to clean my room and study and do dishes!”
– “It looks like your living situation is indeed intolerable. You should start looking for an apartment immediately.”
– “I cannot go to school today, I have a headache.”
– “Oh no! This sounds very serious! I am calling an ambulance!”

Interpersonal communications are like a tango –when one person leans in, the other has to lean out. Extending uses this principle to help a person get unstuck, as in extending: 1) we violate expectations and deviate from a person’s script on how the conversation will flow, thus, introducing a moment of confusion to ease the rebalancing, and 2) we lean in (by taking a situation more seriously than was intended), which puts the other in a position to have to lean out, such as by dropping an issue, backing out of the conversation, or simply complying.

The unorthodox/humorous irreverence is useful when: 1) there is an attack on personal integrity; 2) ignoring is not likely to work, because our attention is not the main reinforcing factor; and 3) we have enough confidence to make fun of self. For this strategy to work, we need to be able to laugh at ourselves. It does not include self- deprecation and is not meant to be offensive or self-critical. It is just not taking self too seriously. An ironic comment is directed ONLY to self. It is the opposite of sarcasm, which is also a form of irony but with an intent to ridicule, mock and criticize someone else.

– “You are so inflexible!”
– “Yeah, I have never been good at gymnastics”
– “Do you understand that when I look at you, it makes me sick to my stomach?”
– “For real! I have to wear diapers to watch horror movies”
– “You are so disorganized!”
– “Yes! I usually say that I am “spontaneously flexible”
– “You are so annoying!
– “Totally! If annoying were an Olympic sport, I’d be a gold medalist”
– “You are crazy!”
– “Yes, but please do not tell this to my psychiatrist!”

What happens when we use unorthodox/humorous irreverence: 1) we violate expectations by deviating from a script, which disarms the attacker; 2) we communicate that our self-concept is diametrically opposite to what is stated, otherwise we will be defensive; 3) we clearly identify the other person as an aggressor by not fighting back; and 4) we decrease chances of such an attack in the future, as it clearly does not work and may even backfire. One of my brilliant teen clients compared unorthodox irreverence to an elevator without buttons – if there are no buttons to press, the elevator will not move. So, this strategy works great to stop verbal bulling. And, of course, we may not be able to come up with a quick witty reply on the spot every time. However, we can cope ahead if there is a pattern to insults and consult ChatGPT that can generate hundreds of funny come backs.

Using the Law of 3 YESes is also very conducive for practicing, acquiring, and maintaining self-control. Control necessitates the freedom of choice in the selection of a response. To gain such freedom, we need to introduce a pause between a stimulus and a response. Otherwise, we are stuck in the “I feel it, I do it” cycle. Saying ‘YES” as the main initial reaction, puts us in a position to then have to stop and think “which one of the three?” Thus, by just saying “YES” we introduce a pause, gain freedom of choice, and increase chances of getting what we want, while improving relationships with others and self.

Now that is what we call manipulation.


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