When I've said "you can't have it both ways" to my boss, and my former professor, they reacted negatively. This leads me to wonder if this phrase is considered impolite. Is it?

If so, what's a polite alternative?

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    You are, in effect, implying that they are being inconsistent and irrational- that is considered impolite.
    – Jim
    Nov 27, 2016 at 5:02
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    You might suggest, “Let’s look at the trade-offs here.”
    – Jim
    Nov 27, 2016 at 5:05
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    You might try something like, "It seems to me that this is an either/or situation, where either we can do X or we can do Y, but we can't do both; but If I'm misreading the situation, please let me know where I've got it wrong." This asserts the same viewpoint as your original phrase, but (1) it frames the situation as one in which you and the person in power ("we") are on the same team and faced with the same reality, and (2) it invites the person in power to set you straight—with an explanation, and not merely with a "Yes, you're wrong"—so that you can satisfy their wishes (if possible).
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 27, 2016 at 8:53
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    Some ideas at english.stackexchange.com/questions/316344/…
    – k1eran
    Nov 27, 2016 at 12:58
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    @Jim But that's exactly what I want to communicate. The question is whether there's a less threatening phrase for it. When I don't communicate that, I get blamed later on by the boss for the drawback. For example, there's a quick way to do something which yields okay but not great results, and a great but slow way. The boss says he wants me to take the quick path, but wants a great result. I need to tell him ahead of time that he can't have both; else I get blamed later on for the okay but not great result. Nov 28, 2016 at 4:07

3 Answers 3


You should say that the requirements are mutually exclusive. Here are a couple examples:

(From MWLD)

War and peace are mutually exclusive.

(From Forbes)

Development And Preservation Don't Have To Be Mutually Exclusive


Polite alternative:

Let's say boss wants to continue using the same software but at the same time is telling you under no circumstances to continue using the same software. You could say (using his/her verbatims language as much as possible):

On the one hand, you want me to continue using the same software. On the other hand, you instructed me not to continue to use the same software, under any circumstances. (Cite the dates if it will help.) Now I'm in a quandary, unsure which set of instructions to follow. Could you please clarify?

That's just an example.

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    Do you have the authority (e.g. budget) to pick a solution? If yes then you should. If not then in such situations I construct a business case. It is important to list all alternatives considered. In your case one alternative is to continue to use the existing software. Another alternative is to use something else; you must propose alternative(s). Dec 12, 2016 at 0:43
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    (Continued) For each alternative list the pros and cons of each. You must pick an alternative as the recommendation. For the recommended alternative you list the pros and cons but for each con you state a way that the risk can be contained. Dec 12, 2016 at 0:44
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    @VaddadiKartick - I'm sorry I missed your comment when you wrote it. // You might want to post at Workplace SE. Perhaps it's time to start looking for a different job. One other idea I have is to look for a mentor, someone who knows your boss well, who can help you navigate these treacherous waters. Dec 12, 2016 at 0:54

If aparente001 didn’t cover all the bases then how is this question about language and usage, rather than negotiation skills or assertiveness, please? What makes you sure they’re wrong to write that uncertainty is a part of your work in particular and that you need to learn to navigate it, and so on?

Half the problem with "you can't have it both ways" is that it's a statement; a conclusion that pushes them into your corner so they'll prolly find it hard to take even from an equal…

You need to ask them first to clarify the parameters.

“You’re asking for the quick path. Is that right?"It might be better to ask: “We're looking for the quick path. Is that right?"

“I think you also want a great result, yes?” or perhaps" "We also want a great result, yes”

“Is there an inconsistency there?” If they say "No" then loop back until you're sure whether it's you or they who have misunderstood.

Having established that much, it should be they who set the priorities, partly to massage their egos and partly to leave them carrying any blame.

“So, we need to take the quick path and we also need a great result; is that right? Which is the priority here?”

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    It's a question about language because I was looking for an alternative phrase, not for help on negotiation skills or assertiveness. For example, "Oh, I have a different view" is a less threatening alternative to "You're wrong". Dec 12, 2016 at 9:30

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