The Why Don’t You… Yes But Game (aka How To Break The Cycle Of Pointless Conversations)

yes but

Have you ever been stuck in a game of ‘Why don’t you do this …?’ with someone who keeps coming back at you with ‘Yes, but …’?

– I’m bored.
Why don’t you play football with your friends?
Yes, but the field is too wet.
Why don’t you read a book?
Yes, but I read at night before I go to sleep.
Why don’t we play cards?
Yes, but we never play the game I like.
Why don’t you choose the game?
Yes, but then you’ll just complain.

This is a typical conversation I would have with my teenage son.

It goes on and on unresolved until we both give up, him feeling vindicated, me feeling he’s just too difficult.

This sort of pattern ‘Why don’t you?’ ‘Yes, but’ is very common. Not just between frustrated parents and teenagers but between adults, between friends, between husbands and wives, between adults and their therapists.

Eric Berne (a psychiatrist known for his studies on communication and founder of Transactional Analysis) described this very pattern as a game people play: The Why don’t you… Yes, but.. game.

The Why Don’t You…? Yes, But… Game

Why does Berne call this a ‘game’?

Because it’s not just a series of innocent remarks, questions and answers.

It’s a very well defined pattern where each party plays a specific role.

In our Why don’t you… Yes but… game we have 2 players: one who plays the victim with the insurmountable problem while the other plays the rescuer.

And, just like in a game, there is a prize or a payoff.

The prize for the victim is to prove he’s right and that there’s no solution to his problem. The secondary prize is that, by doing so, he avoids having to actually try to solve his problem – since he’s just proven that there is no solution. Another subconscious prize is sometimes to prove the rescuer wrong, making them feel useless.

The prize for the rescuer is that, even though he hasn’t found a solution, he can be happy in the knowledge that he’s tried to help. Sometimes he also ends up feeling superior: ‘I knew the answer, but they’re too stubborn to listen’.

A Game Without Winners

Even though there’s a payoff for each actor, have you noticed that there’s actually no real winner?

The victim turns into some sort of persecutor, happy to prove the rescuer useless. He also remains stuck in his problem, convincing himself there’s nothing he can do.

The rescuer can never win and be a true rescuer. That’s the point of this game.

This kind of ‘game playing’ almost always serves the purpose of reinforcing our negative feelings or blaming others for our bad feelings.

People ‘play’ many other ‘games’.

Here are some games that Berne described:

  • If it wasn’t for you, I could/would…
  • I would love you if…
  • See what you made me do?
  • Look how hard I’ve tried.
  • Poor Me. Pity me.
  • Gotcha!
  • I’m tired. I have too many responsibilities. (Harried/Hustled game)
  • I can’t help it. This is who I am. (Wooden Leg game)
  • Why does this always happen to me?
  • You got me into this.

I’m sure some of them sound familiar.

Some games are ‘victim’ games, others are ‘persecutor’ games.

The one thing they have in common? They’re not beneficial to anyone involved.

There’s no way to win at these games.

Even if we think we win – by earning sympathy, satisfaction, vindication – it will just reinforce our life script and will keep us stuck in the same sterile situation.

Instead, we need to stop playing games and to start making real changes to our life in order to move forward.

Break Away From The Game

The first step is to know if we’re part of a game.

Are you the unknown actor of someone else’s game? Do you play games yourself?

Pay attention to your conversations. Are there patterns? Are similar ‘pointless’ conversations coming up regularly?
How do you feel after these exchanges? Frustrated? Uncomfortable? Vindicated?

If you know you’re part of a game, the easiest way to break away is to deprive the actors of their payoff.

The discussion with my son could go like this:
– I’m bored.
– Well, it’s OK to be bored sometimes.

Ta-dah! End of discussion!

Final Words

Another way to refuse the play with someone is to bring the discussion back to the real source of the problem: how their own actions or lack of actions are actually causing their problem.

  • ‘Yes, but…’ players need to sort out their problem and not be comforted in their helplessness feelings.
  • ‘Harried/Hustled’ players don’t need sympathy but rather to sort out their priorities and learn to manage expectations.
  • ‘Wooden Leg’ players don’t need excuses but they need to take responsibilities for their actions and find a way forward.
  • …etc.

Of course, it’s not as easy to do. It depends on your relationship with that person, how involved you want to be, how well you understand their game.

If it’s your partner, no doubt you have your own games in play and being too open might be too big an upheaval for your relationship.

But you don’t always need to be specific. You don’t need to completely expose their game. Sometimes, at the right time, it’s useful to gently put the emphasis back onto them, just like a life coach would do, and ask them:

“So, what are you going to do about it?!”


The Why Don’t You… Yes But Game (aka How To Break The Cycle Of Pointless Conversations) — 4 Comments

  1. Interesting idea – bring the discussion back to the real source of the problem. That’s a great idea, I’ll remember that when I’m in a discussion like that next time. There’s always a temptation to just ignore a conversation like this – they don’t seem to go anywhere so I tend to tune out. But if you get to the real source of the problem, you can actually make some good out of it.

    • If you care about them, helping them move on is, I believe, the right thing to do…
      If… they are receptive.
      Sometimes they’re just not ready to get out of the game just yet. They want the attention. They want to keep being a victim.
      Then, tuning out is not a bad idea because you’re not playing their game. Chances are, they’ll turn to somebody else who will get sucked in their game. But at least, you won’t be used.
      Best wishes

  2. Great post! I will use the new response with my 4yr old when he says he is bored 🙂
    Also I agree It is easy to get drawn into the “games” created by others .
    I like your idea of using the coaches approach, I think where appropriate it could work nicely and take a lot of the emotional stress away from the person on the receiving end.

    • Thanks Raquel for your comment.
      I really like the coaches approach too: it puts the onus on the person with the problem to find an approach that suits them and, because they choose the approach, they own it too. Very powerful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *