October 8, 2008

Positive 'No'

Recently I have been using William Ury's approach to the positive 'no' a lot. Ury says that being able saying 'no' is critical. We are confronted with so much information and so many suggestions and demands that we simply cannot function well without being able to say 'no'. But saying 'no' is hard. If we do it ineffectively, other people may feel offended or rejected or they may view your 'no' as arrogant or uncooperative. So developing the skill of saying 'no' constructively and gracefully is very worthwhile. Ury describes how this can be done. He presents the simple sequence of YES!-NO-YES?

The first step is to root your 'no' in an underlying yes. What is you good reason to say 'no' now. What positive value, interest, intention is behind that 'no'. Ury claims that if you first express your underlying yes, your 'no' will be understood and accepted much easier. After your YES and NO have been delivered, you may come up with a YES? which is an invitation to an alternative solution.

This seems simple doesn't it? Yet, when explaining this approach to trainees I am often surprised how hard most people find it. They don't find it hard to understand but they do find it hard to apply. To parts are usually considered the hardest: 1) to simply answer to yourself what it is you are saying 'no' to. Many people somehow distort what is actually asked of them and make their own version of the question or demand that is posed to them. With the positive 'no' approach however, you stick to the original question or demand as it was formulated by the other person. 2) the second thing many people find hard to do is to make their underlying YES explicit. It really takes patience to find those underlying values and principles.

The positive 'no' approach fits wonderfully with the solution-focused approach. It also shares this characteristic with the solution-focused approach: it seem easier than it is. Fortunately, once people learn how to apply it, they usually find it very very useful. Maybe soon, I'll post an example of how to say 'no' positively.


  1. Hi phd in yogurtry, thanks! I'll try to find time within a week to write one down!

  2. How about this example which I wrote only this morning to a colleague

    "Hi (name), I think this is a lovely idea and it's going to do lots of good things. I'm going to resist the kind offer (for now) for two reasons; a) I'm still connected strongly to the brand world, but my focus has broadened to change (that's what my clients are buying), and b) i'm a member of too many communities and getting weighed down with keeping up. That said, I have several colleagues who'd be interested. Would you like their contact info, or can I pass this offer along to them?'

    How does that sound??

  3. sounds good. it can be such a relief to be able to say no, don't you think?