To learn this essential life skill, I’m working through The Power of a Positive No. How to Say No and Still Get to Yes by William Ury (2007). Ury is a respected author and co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, and is one of the world’s leading experts on negotiation and mediation, so this is a good place to start.
I wish I’d read this book years ago (but I probably wouldn’t have done anything about it back then). Ury perfectly describes the difficulty of saying NO to our nearest and dearest, and people on whom we rely, like work colleagues, managers and community leaders. In my case, saying no to my daughter’s constant requests to buy clothes/takeaway/icecream/makeup/shoes/concert tickets/staying out late/have friends stay over, makes me feel like a bad parent even though it’s in her best interests (and mine) to restrict them.
At the other end of the scale, Ury retells an example from the business world where an inability to say NO and challenge the group-think led to a $150 million loss.
NO is the word we use to protect ourselves and to stand up for everything and everyone that matter to us. You have to say NO to a demand or request that is unwelcome, a behaviour that is inappropriate or abusive, or a situation or system that is not working or is not fair.
Often we have a black and white view of saying NO – that it’s a power struggle. We feel like we have to choose between exercising our power to defeat the other by saying NO or losing our power and protecting the relationship. The way most people handle this conflict is by either:
- Accommodating: saving the relationship while sacrificing our own interests
- Attacking: which is the opposite of being accommodating, i.e. getting angry, finger pointing/blaming the other or destructive conflict
- Avoiding: saying nothing at all
These approaches usually lead to resentment and guilt, and what Ury calls the three A trap.
What I’ve found fascinating so far is his assertion that it’s not a zero sum game – that either you protect the relationship OR exercise your power. He suggests using both at the same time, “engaging the other in a constructive and respectful confrontation.”
How to say NO without feeling bad
The key to a Positive No is respecting yourself and the other person, which Ury describes in the Yes! No. Yes? sequence:
- Yes. The first Yes expresses your interests and is internally focused.
- No. Asserts your power.
- Yes? Furthers your relationship and is externally focused.
To illustrate using a real life situation, he mentions a family confronting their son destroying his and his family’s life through gambling. Using the 3 step Positive No process, the intervention went like this:
- Yes. How much the son meant to them.
- No. He needed to stop gambling or lose their support.
- Yes? Inviting him to seek help at a residential treatment program.
He then got the therapeutic help he needed and recovered from his gambling addiction.
The gift of a Positive No
Ury says that learning to say NO skillfully and wisely, helps you create what you want, protect what you value, and change what doesn’t work. How we say NO determines the quality of our lives.
Because I’m in the mindset to change and transform my life (hence the blog!), this really resonated: Every creative change begins with an intentional No to the status quo.
That was the first couple of chapters in a nutshell. I’ll report back on how I go with the Yes! No. Yes? sequence this week.