Do you have a difficult time saying no? I do. At heart, I am a people-pleaser. I hate disappointing people.
But at some point, you realize that you can’t say yes to everyone else. Attempting to do so puts at risk your own agenda and the things that matter most.
Recently, at the recommendation of my friend, Mary DeMuth, I started reading The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes by Harvard professor William Ury. It has strengthened my resolve to say No when necessary but to do so in a healthy, respectful way.
In the introduction to the book, the author explains that there are three responses to someone who asks us to do something we don’t want to do.
- Accommodation: We say Yes when we want to say No. This usually comes when we value the relationship of the person making the request above the importance of our own interests.
- Attack: We say no poorly. This is a result of valuing our own interests above the importance of the relationship. Sometimes we are fearful or resentful of the request and overreact to the person asking.
- Avoidance: We say nothing at all. Because we are afraid of offending the other party, we say nothing, hoping the problem will go away. It rarely does.
Sometimes, these responses spill over into one another, making a difficult situation worse. For example, we initially avoid the request, prompting a second or third request. We then get annoyed and attack the one making the request. This leads to guilt, perhaps an apology, and then accommodation.
There has to be a better way. Fortunately, there is.
Dr. Ury suggests a fourth strategy that doesn’t require us to sacrifice either the relationship or our own priorities. He calls this a positive no.
This simple formula employs a “Yes-No-Yes” response. “In contrast to an ordinary No which begins with a No and ends with a No, a positive No begins with a Yes and ends with a Yes (p. 16).”
A positive No has three parts:
- Yes: It begins by saying Yes to yourself and protecting what is important to you. I would also add the importance of affirming the other person.
- No: It continues with a matter-of-fact No that sets clear boundaries. I also avoid leaving the door open by saying “maybe,” as in “maybe I can say Yes to your request in the future.”
- Yes: A positive No ends with a Yes that affirms the relationship and offers another solution to the person’s request.
For example, aspiring authors often e-mail me, asking that I review their book proposal. Here’s how I respond using the Yes-No-Yes formula.
You can find additional examples in a post I wrote called, “Using E-mail Templates to Say No with Grace.”
Interestingly, I rarely have anyone pressure me after receiving an e-mail like this. They typically respond by saying, “Thanks for your consideration. I understand. Thanks for getting back to me.”