How to say “no,” positively

You may have heard of the book “Getting to Yes” by Bill Ury – a book that revolutionized negotiations and formed the basis for most of what we do in mediation. He put into words the idea of negotiating from underlying interests rather than surface positions, and creating solutions that benefit both parties’ basic needs rather than simply compromising – which tends to make neither person happy.

Now he’s written a new book, called “The Power of a Positive No.” I learned about it at a dispute resolution conference last week, but I’m writing about it here because I think everyone can use this book and the ideas in it to help set boundaries, stand up for yourself and for social justice, and learn how to say no anytime you really need to in life.

So what is a positive no? Not surprisingly, it’s a “no” that starts with a yes and ends with a yes. The first yes is to yourself – why are you saying no? What alternative principle are you saying yes to which requires you to say no to the other person? Being very clear with yourself about this and being able to affirmatively communicate it to the other person is key to saying no positively.

The second part is the actual no. What is it that you don’t want to do or can’t do? What principle or part of the other person’s proposal are you not accepting? Saying no in a respectful and firm way is important for this part.

Lastly, there is a final yes, this time to the other person. This comes in the form of another way that that person can get their needs met, or another alternative you can propose that you can say yes to. This final yes reaches out and reaffirms that you value your relationship with the other person.

So what does this look like? Suppose your boss comes to you and asks you to work weekends for the next month in order to finish a critical project that the company has fallen behind on for an important client. You need and want to say no, but you are afraid of losing your job, losing your boss’s respect, disappointing your client, not pulling your weight with other co-workers, etc.

The negative no: “No way! Thanksgiving is coming up – I can’t believe you would ask me to do that.” or “I don’t get paid enough to work weekends!” or even “Sorry, I just can’t. My wife will kill me.” All of these are negative nos that don’t come across very well. Don’t make excuses, stand for a positive principle.

The positive no: “In our family, Thanksgiving is the main holiday of the year, and we will have relatives visiting from out of town. My daughter’s soccer finals are also next weekend. It’s important to me to be with the family for these events. So, I can’t work weekends for the next month. But, I can work this weekend and I can work late Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I can also talk to June and see if she’d be willing to help out. We’ll find a way to get it done!”

Of course, if this boss is always asking you to give up your weekends and holidays, you might be less forthcoming about putting in the extra time. In that case, you have to really look at your values and what’s important to you. You may need a Plan B if your boss doesn’t accept your positive no – for example, looking for a new job.

Thinking about it this deeply whenever you feel like you want to say no helps you identify your underlying priorities, and take whatever action is appropriate. In the first case above, it may be to find a way to get both of your needs met. In the second case, it may be to recognize that your current job is incompatible with those deeper values.


5 thoughts on “How to say “no,” positively

  1. judithornot says:

    Sounds like a very helpful book. Can see I’m going to have to add it to my professional library! :-) Thank you, Teresa!

  2. Coppermoon says:

    I know at least one – two, three, sixty, 107 people that could benefit from this book – many thanks, T!

  3. dancingwind says:

    The concept of how to say no in positive ways is something I’m dealing with in several situations in my life right now. So am particularly interested in reading the book. Will add it to my list!

    Thanks for the review and the detailed examples Teresa!

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