Mind Matters - July 2007
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

The Power of "Yes"
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- July 2007

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I am a 68 year-old married man. I am here to tell you that "old dogs can learn new tricks." I used to be the kind of man who got defensive and angry whenever my first wife or adult children would bring up sensitive issues or complain. But, my second wife taught me some things that I guess my first wife and I could not figure out, maybe because of our personality differences. My second wife was able to teach me how to negotiate and not be so rigid and defensive. Do you think that certain personality types are just not meant to be married? Signed: New Man on the Block.

    Dear "New Man":

      Thank you for writing! According to the leading expert in marital matters, John M. Gottman, Ph.D., the short answer is it is not so much personality differences that destroy relationships as it is communication styles and unawareness about certain gender differences. My guess is that your second wife had a way of saying things that didn't push your buttons so much so that you could learn different ways of dealing with conflicts or stresses in your new relationship other than stonewalling.

      One of the most important things to keep in mind about relationships between men and women is a not-well-publicized fact: men respond to stresses different than women. According to Dr. Gottman, in 85 percent of marriages, the stonewaller is the husband. In his book "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work," Dr. Gottman cites research that shows that men's cardiovascular and "fight-or-flight" responses are more reactive to stress and recover much more slowly. Stonewalling and counter-attacking are methods for damping down or dealing with this "flood" of biological over-reactivity.

      This brings me to the subject of this column -- the power of the word "yes." In Dr. Gottman's widely-reported 1998 "Newlywed Study," researchers found that newlywed men who were accepting of influence and directions from their wives generally ended up in happy, stable marriages. The resisting, tyrannical type guy who failed to listen to his wife's complaints, who stonewalled or treated his wife's ideas and thoughts with contempt or hostility had a doomed marriage. Gottman's research also showed that men are more prone to the "win-lose" mindset, and have a tougher time creating "win-win" situations and thinking in terms of collaboration.

      So, what, exactly, is the secret of the word "yes"? The short answer is: "It does not produce a lot of resistance." Somehow, the word "no" grates on our nerves and often changes conversations into power games.

      You may not have heard of the "Yes, if..." technique taught to some teachers. The activity requires teachers to identify requests from students to which they have been usually responding with the answer "No" -- like when a student asks "Can I sharpen my pencil?" The answer has often been "No, I'm talking right now." The better answer might be one which sounds more like a win-win proposal, such as "Yes, when I'm finished giving instructions." You see how that answer allows both participants in the conversation to win something. Taking the "win-lose" out of an interaction creates a different mindset of partnership and mutual advancement.

      "Yes" believers recommend: (1) say "yes" as often as you can, and (2) when you say no, don't change your mind (of course, this is good for teachers but for us guys who are prone to saying "no" a lot, we may need to learn how to say "Well, I was a little fast on that one, let me think about it a bit more.").

      Think about your responses, and try to say "yes" as often as possible. I guarantee you will like the positive effect it will have on your life, your community and your family. I hope that helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Bellevue, Washington. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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      Have a great day!

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