Adapted from “When You Mean No, Say So!” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Too often, we say yes when we shouldn’t. Wanting to be team players at work, we postpone a family vacation. Or we pitch in on a community project when we have no time for it. In the short term, we please whoever made the request, but we ultimately fail to meet our other responsibilities, professional and personal.
It may seem odd that William Ury, coauthor of the bestseller Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin, 1991), has written a book on how to say no. But Ury makes a powerful argument that although no can be both destructive and sometimes hard to utter, the word also “has the power to profoundly transform our lives for the better.” In fact, saying no can lay the foundation for valuable agreement.
In The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes (Bantam, 2007), Ury advises following a three-step process before hastily responding to other people’s requests and demands. First, uncover your deeper self-interest, whether it’s a practical need (like not missing dinner at home) or a fundamental principle. Defining what we need to protect gives us strength and points the way to a constructive solution.
Next, deliver a respectful no using a neutral, matter-of-fact tone that avoids a battle of wills. The no should be “empowered” with an alternative, as Ury puts it. For example, “I’m sorry I can’t do A, but perhaps I could do B, if that would help.” Third, negotiate a solution that protects your needs but also accommodates some of your counterpart’s key interests.
The steps rest on deep aspects of human nature and values. At the core, they allow you to move from being reactive—either submitting or opposing—to proactively shaping your options and relationships.
Ury’s book echoes the ancient proverb “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, who am I for?” A “positive no” allows you to craft a third path that’s superior to a grudging yes or a resentful no.