by Achim Nowak

The Skillful Art of Saying NO

September 19, 2022

I love eating sushi at a sushi bar. It’s about the sushi, of course. But it’s in equal measure about the chit-chat with fellow sushi lovers sitting at the counter.

Early Friday evening, as I sit at the counter of Sozo Sushi in Ft. Lauderdale, I drift into a chat with Andy, the fellow sitting to my right. Andy, it turns out, is the just-retired CEO of a well-known Fortune 500 recruitment firm.

Do you miss your work? I ask Andy

I hated the politics of my job, Andy answers circuitously.

So what kind of guidance would you give another executive on how to navigate politics? I persist

I’m the wrong person to ask, Andy says sheepishly. I was horrible at it. He pauses, and then he volunteers: Learn to say NO and make them feel like they won!

Andy’s comment makes me think of William Ury, co-founder of The Harvard Negotiation Project, a co-author of the classic “Getting to Yes” as well as his own “The Power of a Positive No.”

Every day we find ourselves in situations where we need to say NO, Ury asserts in “The Power of the Positive No,” to people at work, at home, and in our communities; because NO is the word we must use to protect ourselves and to stand up for everything and everyone that matters to us. Ury emphasizes the personal price of not saying NO. In today's world of high stress and limitless choices, the pressure to give in and say yes grows greater every day, producing overload and overwork, expanding e-mail and eroding ethics. Never has NO been more needed. 

So how DO we turn a NO and a perhaps undesired perspective into a WIN? Certainly not by spinning it or spouting a bunch of platitudes, like an unskilled politician. No, we do it by skillfully shaping the conversation so the other person’s perspective is invited to shift. When we do it well, NO suddenly seems like the only possible outcome. And the other individual gets to own the NO.

Easy? Nope. But when it works, the other person will be so grateful to you for your NO. Consider the following ways of presenting a NO that will make the person feel like s/he just got a YES.

4 Ways of Framing Your NO

1.    Create a trade-offs narrative.

The boss who loves your work will always be inspired to put more work on your plate. Not because she is mean. No - because he deeply values the quality of what you do. And while they have a vague sense that you already have a lot on your plate, they don’t know how to fully put themselves in your shoes. That’s where you need to “help them out.”

This project sounds really exciting. And I can see how critical it is to our innovation initiatives. I would love to work on it – and this would mean that I will need to put the integration initiative with our two recent acquisitions on the backburner for a couple of months. Will that work for you?

2.    Articulate a powerful context for your NO.

It can be difficult to oppose a new business initiative that sounds enticing to others. Chances are, those others have done their due diligence, crunched the numbers, conducted a risk analysis – and all of this has further fueled their enthusiasm.

Business is full of initiatives that were fueled by leaders who had blind spots. Their blind spots prompted them to minimize potential challenges; it perhaps prevented them altogether from shining light on a potential challenge. Have the courage to broaden their context when your instinct says NO. Your courage may indeed nudge them toward your NO.

Saying NO right now will save us countless headaches and ensure we don’t take ill-considered risks. It will force us to focus more fully on what we actually do best and improve this core rather than getting distracted by a shiny new object. By not doing this deal now, we will have plenty more cash and energy on hand for other deals that will likely be a lot more rewarding for us.

3.    State the benefits of making an exception.

You have heard the calls for standardizing policies, processes, procedures. It’s a well-intentioned desire for clarity and predictability. But you want to scream NO. You view such standardizations as a vehicle that squelches agility, experimentation, innovation. So say NO – gently.

By not making this policy uniform and allowing one business unit to follow different guidelines, we can actually better measure the impact of this new initiative. We will have a comparison study that will yield powerful data. We can always turn this temporary NO into a YES later and will then be armed with better information.

4.    Shift their time perspective.

Every person who pitches you an idea is motivated by an either short-term or long-term outlook. When your instinct is to say NO, notice their time perspective and switch it up: If the other person is fixated on a short-term gain, offer a long-term perspective that makes a NO right now sound like the most prudent choice. If the other person is fixated on making a long-term play, offer clear evidence why your particular NO right now will open the door to better paths toward long-term success.

I understand how appealing this opportunity is. It could be a true game-changer for our business in the long run. Please consider, however, how under-resourced we are right now. Asking folks to work even harder and make more sacrifices in the short-term is, in my opinion, simply not realistic. I’m afraid we will lose way more of our work force than we can handle. We will never get to the appealing outcome. I fear we will fold.

Popular wisdom suggests that we not utter the word NO when we mean NO. Reconsider this dictum.

The depth of our relationship with the other person, and the urgency of the circumstances, will define how explicit our NO will be. A clearly stated NO, coupled with our ability to shift another person’s perspective, is the ultimate relationship WIN. Because we have played above board, and we have done so with skill, there really is no hidden politics at play. Chances are, we gain more respect in the other person’s eyes. We have grown our personal influence and earned the right for future NOs.

My friend Marc Rubin, strategy consultant, used to remind his clients that successful strategy is about what we say NO to. I concur.

Be a little more strategic. Have the courage to say NO more often.

Do it with a measure of skill.

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