I know, “positive no” sounds like an oxymoron. But it is possible to deliver a no in a positive manner. A manner that affirms the points of agreement you have in common, to mention the ties that bind, the interests you share (if only in avoiding mutually assured destruction). It is possible to say no while still acknowledging the other side and showing respect. It is possible to say no while taking care to emphasize what you are willing to do, the things you are willing to say yes to.
William Ury is with Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation and is co-author with Roger Fisher of “Getting to Yes,” the best book on the
principles of negotiation I’ve ever read. At a pithy 187 pages, “Getting to Yes” is a must read for all who wish to turbocharge their life management skills or dramatically raise their level of personal and professional effectiveness.
Confrontation is difficult for many people and saying no is often challenging because many see saying no as confrontational, as conveying
rejection. While this does not have to be the case, our fears and anxiety can lead us into the pitfall of the three-A trap of Accommodation (saying yes when we mean no), Attack (responding with unnecessary vehemence), and Avoidance (doing nothing, i.e. denial, passive aggressive responses).
“The Power of a Positive No” teaches starting with a YES:
1) YES: Affirm and acknowledge the other side, demonstrate an understanding of their position and interests and than state your goals, values, and interests clearly, positively, and specifically.
2) NO: Link your no to your yes. Your no should flow logically from the values you emphasized in your yes.
3) YES: Say what you can do, or outline another potential positive outcome or possible agreement now or in the future, some way to work together.
Here is an example of Yes, No, Yes:
“It is good to hear from you and good to hear of all the valuable work the center is doing. For family reasons, I am not taking on any additional commitments at this time. Next year, if you are still interested, I’d be happy to consider it. Thank you for thinking of me.”
After the initial note of acknowledgement and respect, you begin the “positive no” by expressing a yes, to your interests (“family”). You proceed to assert your no in a matter-of-fact way that does not reject (“I am not taking on any additional commitments at this time”). You follow up by proposing a yes, an alternative solution (“next year, if you are still interested”). You end, just as you began, on a note of respect (“Thank you for thinking of me”).
The book contains many more examples of excellent phrasing designed to diplomatically and respectfully transverse the rocky ground between
declining and antagonizing, standing your ground while still maintaining or building a relationship.
“The art of leadership is not in saying yes but saying no.” — Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister
“A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please or what is worse, to avoid trouble.” — Mahatma Gandhi
“Never take people’s dignity: it is worth everything to them and nothing to you.” — Frank Barron, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, 1922-2002
NOTE: William Ury also is co-author with Roger Fisher of another excellent book on negotiation, “Getting Past No.” Roger Fisher also co-authored “Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate.”