Welcome to the first installment of William Ury’s book The Power of a Positive No. This book was based on Ury’s celebrated Harvard University course for managers and professionals and offers concrete advice and practical examples for saying No in virtually any situation.
Reasons why learning the skill of saying no is important:
Tony Blair said, “The art of leadership is not saying Yes, it’s saying No.”
“All too often, we cannot bring ourselves to say NO when we want to and know we should. Or we do say No but say it in a way that blocks agreement and destroys relationships. We submit to inappropriate demands, injustice, even abuse–or we engage in destructive fighting in which everyone loses.”
“Now the more immediate and pressing need is for people to be able to say NO in a positive way that enables them to stand up for what they value without destroying their relationships….for all of life is a dance of Yes and No….Whether and how we say No determines the very quality of our lives. It is perhaps the most important word for us to learn to say gracefully and effectively.”
“In both my personal and professional lives, I have said Yes when in retrospect I found myself fervently wishing I had said No. Sometimes I have fallen into the trap of attacking or avoiding when I would have been much better off engaging the other side in healthy conflict.”
“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
The word No, the most powerful and needed word in our language today is also potentially the most destructive, and for many people, the hardest to say. Yet when we know how to use it correctly, this one word has the power to profoundly transform our lives for the better.
The Three-A Trap
No may be the most important word in our vocabulary, but it is the most difficult to say well.
When I ask the participants in my executive seminars at Harvard and elsewhere why they find it challenging to say No, the most common answers I receive are:
“I don’t want to lose the deal.”
I don’t want to spoil the relationship.”
I’m afraid of what they might do to me in retaliation.”
“I’ll lose my job.”
“I feel guilty–I don’t want to hurt them.”
At the heart of the difficulty in saying NO is the tension between exercising your power and tending to your relationship. Exersicing your power, while central to the act of saying No, may strain your relationship, whereas tending to your relationship may weaken your power.
There are three common approaches to this power-versus relationship dilemma:
Accomodate: we say Yes When we Want to say No
Accommodation usually means an unhealthy Yes that buys a false temporary peace….All too often, we go along to get along, even if we know it is not the right decision for us. OUr Yes is actually a destructive Yes, for it undermines our deeper interest….There is a saying that half our problems today come from saying Yes when we should be saying No. The price of saying Yes when we should be saying No has never been higher. Accommodating happens because we are inabled by fear to look at the larger picture. If we saw the larger picture, we would have greater courage to say No when needed and Yes when it is proper.
Attack: We say No Poorly
The opposite of accommodation is to attack. We use our power without concern for the relationship. If accommodation is driven by fear, attack is driven by anger. We may feel angry at the other for their hurtful behavior, or offended by an unreasonable demand, or simply frustrated by the situation. Ambrose Bierce said: “Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.
If many of our problems come from saying Yes when we should be saying No, surely just as many come from saying No but saying it poorly. Each time people attack each other, what message are they really delivering? At the heart of every destructive conflict in the world, small or large, is a NO. What is terrorism, the great threat of today, if not a terrible way of saying No?
Avoid: We Say Nothing at All
A third common approach is avoidance. We don’s say Yes and we don’t say No; we say nothing at all. Avoidance is an exceedingly common response to conflicts today, particularly within families or organizations. Because we are afraid of offending others and drawing their anger and disapproval, we say nothing, hoping that the problem will go away even though we know it will not.
Avoidance causes problems to fester until they become unavoidable crises.
Avoidance, in whatever domain of life, is deadening. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
The three A’s–accommodation, attack, and avoidance–are not just three separate approaches. Usually, one spills over into the other, resulting in what I call the three-A trap.
We all too often start by accommodating the other. Then, naturally, we begin to feel resentful. After suppressing our feelings for a while, there comes a point when we suddenly explode, only to feel guilty afterward at the destructive impact of our attack. So we lapse back into accommodation or avoidance, ignoring the problem and hoping it will disappear. We are like a mouse caught in a maze, rushing from one box to another and never getting to the cheese.
The Way Out: A Positive No
Fortunately, there is a way out of the trap. It requires you to challenge the common assumption that either you can use power to get what you want (at the cost of relationship) or you can use relationship (at the cost of power). It calls on you to use both at the same time, engaging the other in a constructive and respectful confrontation.
In contrast to an ordinary No which begins with No and ends with No, a Positive No begins with Yes and ends with Yes.
Saying No means, first of all, saying Yes! to yourself and protecting what is important to you. A Positive No, in short is a Yes! No. Yes? The first Yes expresses your interests, the No asserts your power, and the second Yes furthers your relationship. A positive No thus balances power and relationship in the service of your interests.
Note the distinction between the first Yes and the second Yes. The first Yes is internally focused–an affirmation of your interests; the second Yes is externally focused–an invitation to the other to come to an agreement that satisfies those interests.
The key to a Positive no is respect. What distinguishes a Positive No from accommodation is that you give respect to yourself and what is important for you. What distinguishes a positive no from an attack is that you give respect to the other too as you say No to their demand or behavior. The Positive No works because you sand on your feet not on their toes.
This came from Ury’s book pages 1-18.