The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes

The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes

by William Ury


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No is perhaps the most important and certainly the most powerful word in the language. Every day we find ourselves in situations where we need to say 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.

But as we all know, the wrong No can also destroy what we most value by alienating and angering people. That’s why saying No the right way is crucial. The secret to saying No without destroying relationships lies in the art of the Positive No, a proven technique that anyone can learn.

This indispensable book gives you a simple three-step method for saying a Positive No. It will show you how to assert and defend your key interests; how to make your No firm and strong; how to resist the other side’s aggression and manipulation; and how to do all this while still getting to Yes. In the end, the Positive No will help you get not just to any Yes but to the right Yes, the one that truly serves your interests.

Based on William Ury’s celebrated Harvard University course for managers and professionals, The Power of a Positive No offers concrete advice and practical examples for saying No in virtually any situation. Whether you need to say No to your customer or your coworker, your employee or your CEO, your child or your spouse, you will find in this book the secret to saying No clearly, respectfully, and effectively.

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. A Positive No has the power to profoundly transform our lives by enabling us to say Yes to what counts–our own needs, values, and priorities.

Understood this way, No is the new Yes. And the Positive No may be the most valuable life skill you’ll ever learn!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553804980
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/27/2007
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

A world-renowned negotiator, mediator, and bestselling author, William Ury directs the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University. Over the last thirty years he has helped millions of people, hundreds of organizations, and numerous countries at war reach satisfying agreements.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

The Power of a Positive No

How to Say No and Still Get to Yes
By William Ury


Copyright © 2007 William Ury
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780553804980

Chapter One

Uncover Your Yes

"In creating, the only hard thing's to begin; a grass-blade's no easier to make than an oak." –James Russell Lowell

Perhaps the single biggest mistake we make when we say No is to start from No. We derive our No from what we are against–the other's demand or behavior. A Positive No calls on us to do the exact opposite and base our No on what we are for. Instead of starting from No, start from Yes. Root your No in a deeper Yes–a Yes to your core interests and to what truly matters.

Nowhere did I learn this more clearly than from a relative of mine who suffered from a serious addiction to alcohol that nearly cost him and others their lives in a car accident. He tried many times to give up the habit but always failed. Then at the age of sixty, just when all hope seemed lost, he found in him- self the will to say No and stop drinking. The secret? "When my first grandchild was born," he says, "I wanted more than anything to live long enough to see him grow up. It was his birth that motivated me to get treatment and stop drinking. Since then, for over fifteen years now, I have not touched a drop." His Yes to being present for his grandchildren–to be able to play with them and see them grow–motivated his powerful No to alcohol.

His story serves toillustrate an everyday paradoxical truth: the power of your No comes directly from the power of your Yes.

Your Yes is the underlying purpose for which you are saying No. The first step in the method is to uncover the Yes that lies behind your No. The deeper you go into your core motivation, the more powerful your Yes will be and thus the more powerful your No.

From Reactive to Proactive

The biggest obstacle to saying No successfully is not the other, however difficult they might be. It is ourselves. It is our all-too-human tendency to react–to act with intense emotion but without clear purpose. We humans are reaction machines. And our Nos tend to be reactive. We accommodate out of fear and guilt. We attack out of anger. We avoid out of fear. To get ourselves out of this three-A trap, we need to become proactive, forward-looking, and purposeful.

This challenge is vividly captured in an old Japanese story about a samurai and a fisherman. One day, the samurai went to collect a debt from the fisherman. "I'm sorry," the fisherman said, "but this last year has been a very bad one for me, and I regret to say I do not have the money to repay you." Quick to anger, the samurai drew his sword and prepared to kill the fisherman on the spot. Thinking fast, the fisherman boldly said, "I have been studying martial arts and my master teaches that you should never strike out of anger."

The samurai looked at him for a minute, then slowly lowered his sword. "Your master is wise," he said quietly. "My master used to teach the same lesson. Sometimes my anger gets the better of me. I will give you one more year to repay your debt, but if you fail by even a penny, I will surely kill you."

The samurai returned to his house, arriving late at night. He crept in quietly, not wishing to wake his wife, but to his shock, he found two people in the bed, his wife and a stranger dressed in samurai clothing. With a surge of jealousy and anger, he raised his sword to slay them both, but suddenly the fisherman's words came back to him: "Do not strike out of anger." The samurai stopped for a moment, took a deep breath, and then deliberately made a loud noise. His wife instantly woke up, as did the "stranger," who turned out to be his mother.

"What is the meaning of this?" he yelled. "I almost killed you both!"

"We were afraid of robbers," his wife explained. "So I dressed your mother up in your samurai clothes to scare them off."

A year passed and the fisherman came to see the samurai. "I had an excellent year, so here is your money back and with interest," the fisherman said happily to him.

"Keep your money," replied the samurai. "You repaid your debt long ago."

When you want to say No, remember the samurai's lesson: do not react out of anger–or indeed out of any negative emotion such as fear or guilt. Take a deep breath and focus on your purpose–your Yes–in this situation. Ask yourself what you really want and what is really important here. In other words, shift from being reactive focused on No, to being proactive focused on Yes.

This chapter outlines a process that can help you. As the samurai did, you start by stopping and collecting your wits. You then proceed to ask yourself why. Why do you want to say No? What are your underlying interests, needs, and values? Once you have answered this question, you can then crystallize your Yes!–your intention to protect what matters most to you.

Stop: Go to the Balcony

We do not have a chance of being able to influence the other unless we are first able to control our own natural reactions and emotions.

When we want to say No to an offensive behavior or inappropriate demand, it is only natural to feel angry. But anger can blind us. In the rush to say No, angrily and sometimes vengefully, it is all too easy to lose sight of the prize–advancing our interests. Fear too can prevent us from pursuing our objectives. We imagine in advance the other's reaction to our No. What will they think of us or do to us? What will happen to our relationship, to the deal, and thus to our interests? Paralyzed, we accommodate, giving up on our needs. Guilt has a similar effect. "Who am I to say No?" "I don't deserve the time to myself." "Their needs are more important than mine."

Anger can blind, fear can paralyze, and guilt can weaken.

The first challenge we face, therefore, is internal. Recall the example of the man who said No to his domineering father, who was also his boss. In John's own words, "I didn't stand up to my dad, I stood up to my fears!" As John recognized, the real obstacle to getting what he wanted was not his father; it was his own fears. "All the action was basically over by the time I spoke to him." That is the key point. The real action of standing up for yourself takes place inside you before you say No.

This internal action starts with stopping. Stopping is all- important because it interrupts your natural reaction, buys you time to think, and thus allows you to uncover your Yes. You may stop for a second, an hour, a day, or however long is required. What matters is to stop and get some perspective on the situation before proceeding with your No.

I like to use the metaphor of "going to the balcony." The balcony is a detached state of mind you can access anytime you choose. Imagine yourself for a moment as an actor on a stage about to speak your lines–your No. Now picture yourself up on a balcony overlooking the stage, a place where you can see the scene clearly from afar. The balcony is a place of perspective, calm, and clarity. From a balcony perspective, it is much easier to uncover the Yes behind your No.

I came to truly appreciate this lesson when I was asked to facilitate a difficult discussion in the mid-1990s between Russian and Chechen leaders about how to end the tragic war in Chechnya. This discussion took place at the Peace Palace in The Hague in the very same conference room used for the international tribunal on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The Chechen vice president began his long speech by making a series of vociferous accusations against the Russians, saying they should stay in that room because they themselves would soon be on trial for war crimes. He then turned to me and, looking me right in the eye, began attacking: "You Americans have been supporting the Russians in their war crimes! And, what is more, you are violating the rights of self-determination of the people of Puerto Rico!" As he went on with his accusations, others around the table looked at me to see how I would respond. Would I say No to the round of accusations?

I felt defensive and distracted, thinking, "I don't like the turn this conversation is taking. Why is he attacking me? I'm just trying to help. Puerto Rico? What do I know about Puerto Rico?" I felt reactive. Should I just accept this treatment? Should I respond in kind? Should I say nothing at all?

Fortunately, the translation time gave me a chance to go to the balcony. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. Our purpose, I remembered, was to try to bring peace to the people in Chechnya and Russia. That was my Yes. On that basis, I was ready to say No to this vein of accusation that would lead us nowhere.

When my turn came to respond, I simply said to the Chechen vice president, "I hear your criticism of my country and I take it as a sign that we are among friends and can speak candidly with each other. I know your people have suffered terribly. What we are here to do is to find a way to stop the suffering and bloodshed in Chechnya. Let us try to come up with some practical steps that can be taken today." The discussion got back on track. Going to the balcony enabled me to uncover my Yes.

Take a Time-Out

These days the scarcest resource is time to think. Look for opportunities to go to the balcony whenever possible so that you can reflect on your Yes.

When you want to take a time-out, rote phrases can come in handy. If the other is making an unwanted demand, for instance, you could say:

•"I'm sorry, but this is not a good time to talk about this. Let's talk about it this afternoon."
•"Let me think about it and I'll get back to you tomorrow."
•"I need to consult my partner."
•"Let me make a phone call to check something first."

If the other is behaving offensively, you could use a phrase like:

•"Why don't we take a break?"
•"Time-out for five minutes."
•"Would you excuse me? I need a coffee refill."

Achok, a Tibetan friend of mine, once told me: " 'Yes' and 'No' are very important phrases, but another phrase that is really important sometimes is 'wait a minute.' Sometimes you don't know whether to say Yes or No. So the best answer is 'wait a minute,' which gives you the time to decide." Achok was right. Before saying No, it is often wise to wait a minute,' which gives you the time to decide." Achok was right. Before saying No, it is often wise to wait a minute.

During the time-out, step out of the room for a moment. Use the moment of quite to think or consult with a colleague. Imagine it is a customer pressing you for what you fear may be an unrealistic delivery date. In his presence, you might be inclined to agree, but, after talking with your colleague on the phone, you realize this would be a big mistake. Giving yourself a chance to reflect before responding can make all the difference between a reactive Yes and a proactive No.

If you are feeling angry or fearful, go for a walk or engage in your favorite form of exercise. Getting your muscles working and your heart pumping can help discharge anger and reduce fear so when you say No, you can say it from a place of calm and balance.


Excerpted from The Power of a Positive No by William Ury Copyright © 2007 by William Ury. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

1. Think of a time when it felt important to say no, whether you did so to your satisfaction or not. What happened? How did it affect you?

2. William Ury’s introduction begins with the poignant story of his daughter’s illness and the difficulty of navigating the healthcare system.What makes contemporary healthcare such an intimidating realm when it comes to negotiation? How could the Positive No help you transform your physical health?

3. Which of the “Three-A”traps do you encounter most often: Accommodate, Attack, or Avoid, or a combination of all three? When have these traps created disharmony or dishonesty in your community? What is your own tendency and thus your learning edge—do you tend to accommodate, attack, or avoid, or all three?

4. Ury recommends “going to the balcony” to dispel the anger or fear that can undermine a negotiation from the start. What techniques help you “go to the balcony”? What ritual can you create for yourself to implement this? If you try viewing a current conflict situation in your life from a balcony perspective, what do you notice?

5. In uncovering the roots of your fundamental Yes, what interests, needs, and values are central to you? What will it mean to say yes to yourself? What principles are you willing to protect at all costs? Go beyond your first response, asking yourself why that interest, need, or value matters to you so much.

6. The Power of a Positive No is full of memorable examples of those who were prepared to say no to a Goliath, from Rosa Parks (a dedicated civil rights activist) to corporations such as Snapper, which flourished after refusing to comply with Wal-Mart’s demands for continuous price cuts. Discuss a point of contention that has been worrying you in recent weeks. Following Ury’s notion of a Plan B, what backup plan could you create to empower yourself and ensure that your interests are met, even if a negotiated agreement falls through?

7. Chapter Two ends with three questions to ask yourself before saying No. What are the best ways to determine whether you have the interest, the power, and the right to say no? Have you ever had a visceral sense of your interest, power, and right to say no? When? What happened?

8. What did the book help you discover about your own No style? In what circumstances have you found it especially difficult to feel respect for another person? What are the common ingredients in the true stories found in this chapter, such as federal prisoner Troy Chapman’s way of communicating “I have no need of an enemy” when confronting a sidewalk standoff, or the nonviolent resolution witnessed by aikido student Terry Dobson?

9. Do you or those you know resort to using the subtle “attack” words described in chapter four? What is the origin of our impulse to make use of “shoulding,” or judgmental statements, or categorical exaggerations? Try re-phrasing a judgmental statement in more neutral language.

10. Which of the assertive phrases for saying no in chapter five will be easiest for you to add to your everyday conversation style? In what ways can these phrases strengthen relationships that had previously been damaged by words?

11. How can you ensure that you’ve applied the distinctions between warnings and threats in your negotiating style? What is the best way to detect manipulative threats, guilt-trips, and slippery-slope predictions in the language of those with whom you’re negotiating?

12. Chapter Nine distinguishes positions from interests, with ideas for developing an understanding of the motivations behind someone’s claims. What are the interests of some of your rivals? What interests do you share? What opportunities for collaboration might exist between you and those who seem to stand in your way currently? What might their “acceptance speech” look like?

13. Which of the personal stories or quotations was most memorable for you? In what way can you use that narrative or image to remind yourself of your own interests, reinforce your courage, and thus stand up for yourself without damaging the relationship?

14. Participate in a role-playing exercise with the members of your group. Choose someone in your life who has been a particularly hard bargainer (think of Dick Goodwin’s challenge with LBJ). Drawing on Ury’s strategies, practice how you will interact with this difficult person in the future. Make notes of the words that feel natural yet effective to you. The next time your group meets, share the results of your real-life Yes! No. Yes? dialogues. [Below please find a set of instructions for a Positive No exercise, if you would like to use them]

15. Engage in a visionary discussion regarding the Positive No. Beginning on a very local level–your close family members, your team at work, or a community group–envision what daily life would look like if everyone in that circle practiced these principles. Next, expand the vision to a broader scope, eventually arriving at the kinds of geopolitical situations in which Ury has been involved. What kinds of suffering, waste, and loss could be avoided through the practice of a Positive No?

16. In what way does The Power of a Positive No complement and relate to Getting to Yes and Getting Past No? What are the fundamental messages of the trilogy as a whole?


Mutual Consulting Exercise

The exercise will give you an opportunity to work on your Positive No, to rehearse it in front of others, and to receive feedback, so you can improve it.

1. Form into groups of three.

2. Write down your Yes No Yes. Take a few minutes by yourself to write your “Yes! No. Yes?” for your own negotiating situation:
a. First work on your “Yes!” What do you want to say Yes to? What are your underlying interests—desires, needs, concerns, values? What do you stand for? You might begin your sentence with “I stand for . . .,” “I need . . .,” or “I want . . .” and then fill in the blank.
b. Now work on your ‘No’. What exactly are you wanting to say No to? What demand or request do you wish to refuse? What behavior do you wish to change? You might begin your sentence with, “I say No to . . . or I choose not to do . . .” and then fill in the blank. This is your matter-of-fact “No.”
c. Now work on your ‘Yes?’ What, in other words, is your yes-able proposal? What are you offering or suggesting to the Other? What would you like them to do? You might begin with your sentence with “I propose the following: . . .” and then fill in the blank.

3. Rehearse your Positive No in your group of three. One person recites their “Yes! No. Yes?” to the two others in their group. The Positive No might take the following form “Because I stand for X, I say No to Y, and I propose Z.”

4. Give feedback. After one person recites their Positive No, the two others give feedback. Assess whether you thought the No was too accommodating, too attacking, or too avoiding, or just right. Then give the person verbal feedback:
a. Was the “Yes!” strong, clear, powerful?
b. Was the “No.” matter-of-fact, clear, strong, without an edge, a simple pronouncement of a new reality?
c. Was the “Yes?” clear, operational, specific, realistic?

5. Now give them a chance to try again. Give the person a second chance to try out their Positive No after having heard your feedback. Again give them feedback. Now give the person a third chance and give them feedback one last time.

6. Repeat for the second and third persons in the group. Repeat steps 3, 4, 5, for the other persons in the group.

7. Discuss any general lessons in the group of three. First take a minute to edit your Positive No in the light of the feedback you received. Then discuss with your two colleagues:
a. What is difficult for you about delivering a Positive No?
b. What works? What helps you in saying a Positive No?
c. Any surprises or reflections?

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Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
GShuk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We all know people who can say no and still have everyone like them to the point of going out of their way trying to accommodate their wishes. Others will say no to the same thing and everyone turns against them. This book unlocks the mysteries of why this happens and shows you how to say no effectively. It is written in a clear easy to follow style by a negotiating sage who uses many meaningful examples from both business and personal life. In a nutshell a positive no starts with a Yes (affirmation of your core interests), then your No (establish a limit linked to your Yes), and end with a Yes (suggest another positive outcome or brainstorm on how to get to yes). One of the best books on communications I have listened to so far.
Yestare on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
excellent book! highly recommended.
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RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
Imagine that you are a police department's hostage negotiator. An armed man who has just lost his job is holding his wife and children hostage in their barricaded home. He threatens to kill his family and himself unless the authorities turn over the boss who fired him so he can "administer fiery justice." How do you tell this potential murderer no without jeopardizing everyone in the house? The professionals who negotiate during such extreme situations know how to refuse in such a way that no one gets hurt. That's a useful skill, even when lives are not at stake. William Ury, head of Harvard's Global Negotiation Project, has negotiated agreements that have ended bloody conflicts around the world. Here, he outlines a nimble strategy for delivering a "Positive No" in every situation. This approach enables you to be firm about your values and state your opinions without alienating others. getAbstract suggests this book to anyone who has to deliver an occasional no and make it stick.
EmJayBN More than 1 year ago
The perfect blend of substance with brevity. Pick this up today and you'll have answers to help address 90% of your most immediate challenges. Unlike the author's other text, this one has exceeded my expectations for use in Contract Negotiations, interpersonal communications, team building, and conflict resolution as well as an added bonus of being applicable for use at home. Having held roles as Director and Consultant in IT, Engineering, Defense and Biotech I can say with confidence that this is a must read. It applies to all industries and has been most recently applicable in contract negotiations. I owe it to my friend for recommending it and gladly recommend it to others. If the author would like to contact me, I'd gladly put my name on his reference list. Read it, you won't be disappointed.