Saying No Without “No”

The word No can sometimes be a blunt instrument, triggering feelings of shame and rejection in the other. It can also be a fighting word, engendering instant resistance and provoking the other to react. No lends itself to abuse and overuse, particularly with children, and thus begins to lose its power and credibility. Children come to ignore it or to think it really means may “maybe.”

Precisely because No is such a powerful word, it needs to be used carefully, intentionally, and sparingly. Sometimes it is better to use other words to communicate the same message. On occasion, it is possible to say No effectively without actually saying the word. Consider the following examples:

In the middle of a medical consultation, a five-year-old girl insists to her father that she wants to leave. “Honey, we are going to stay,” quietly responds the father.

In a bid to bring the price down, a customer insists on unbundling the product that the cleaning company provides, separating the cleaning products from the training and management services. “Our product comes as a package,” replies the company rep.

Faced with a barrage of angry insults across the telephone from a key investor, the hotel executive says calmly, “Peter, we’ll call you back tomorrow,” and hangs up the phone — in effect saying No to his behavior.

In each case, the meaning and power of the No come across clearly, but without the use of the word. The No remains implied and unspoken.

One option is to focus on the initial Yes and the final Yes, leaving the No implied. Faced with a long drive with a friend whose talkativeness gets on your nerves, you announce, “After the day I’ve had today, I’m feeling a need for some peace and quiet. What do you say we just listen quietly to some music on the ride up?” In other words, simply make an I-statement and follow up with a proposal.

Another option is to reframe your No as a Yes. Instead of telling your child, “No playing until you finish your homework,” say, “You can play as soon as you finish your homework.” Instead of telling your co-worker, “I can’t help you until I complete this assignment,” say, “I’d be happy to help you after I complete this assignment.” Instead of telling your friend, “I’m not going with you to the game,” say, “I’ll catch you after the game.” In other words, put your focus on the positive while creating the boundary you need.

There are cultures, principally in East Asia, that go to great lengths to devise ways of saying No without actually using that word to avoid causing shame and to help the other save face. Not using the word, however, does not mean that they do not say No. They just find indirect means, such as using third parties or subtle signs. This may lead to confusion for those not well versed in the semiotics of a different culture.

During some work I once did with a major U.S. automotive company, I heard the story of how one of the top executives paid a visit to South Korea and met with the president of a Korean auto manufacturer. The U.S. company at that point owned a 10 percent share of the Korean company, and the executive proposed to his Korean counterpart that they increase that share to 50 percent. “That is not impossible,” replied the Korean executive politely.

Parsing that response, the U.S. executive thought, “‘That is not impossible’ means that it is possible.” Upon his return to Detroit, therefore, he dispatched a top-level team to Seoul to negotiate the deal. For two weeks, the team sat there, every meeting they scheduled inexplicably postponed. Finally, one Korean manager took his U.S. counterpart aside and quietly explained that “It is not impossible” was just a polite way of saying “Over my dead body.”

The basic point to remember is that while the word No can sometimes remain unspoken, the intention still needs to be conveyed clearly and powerfully.

Excerpted from The Power of a Positive No by William Ury. Copyright © 2007 William Ury. Published by Bantam Books; March 2007;$25.00US/$30.00CAN; 978-0-553-80498-0.