Consider the story of a man named John who felt compelled to stand up to a domineering father, who also happened to be his employer. John worked in the family business, putting in long hours that kept him away from his wife and children, even at holiday times. Although John’s workload and responsibilities far exceeded those of his co-workers—his three brothers-in-law—his father paid everyone the same salary. It was all about avoiding favoritism, his father explained. Fearful of confronting his father, John had never complained, although he privately fumed about the overwork and inequity. Finally, John realized something had to change. Summoning all his courage, he decided to speak up for himself.
“We were at a family dinner when I told Dad I wanted to speak to him privately. I told him I wanted to be with my family during the upcoming holidays, that I was not working overtime anymore, and that I wanted to be compensated proportionately for my work.”
John spoke strongly, yet respectfully. The father’s response was not what the son feared it might be: “Dad took it better than I anticipated. I wasn’t trying to get one over on him. I just wanted to stand on my own two feet—not on his toes if I could help it. Maybe he sensed that: he said fine to no overtime and that we’d talk about the finances. I sensed he felt angry and proud at the same time.”
Previously, John had assumed it was either-or. Either he exercised his power or he tended to the relationship. Fearing his father’s disapproval, he withheld his power—for years. He accommodated and avoided. What he learned when he said No to his father was that it is possible to use your power and at the same time to preserve your relationship. That is the heart of what it means to say a Positive No.
In contrast to an ordinary No, which begins with No and ends with No, a Positive No begins with Yes and ends with Yes. Saying No means, first of all, saying Yes! to yourself and protecting what is important to you.
As John described his core motivation: “I didn’t do it to get a particular response, although I still cared about what he thought. I did it because I thought, If you don’t speak up now, you’ll have no self-respect! ” The way John expressed his opening Yes to his father was: “Dad, my family needs me and I intend to spend the holidays with them.”John then followed through with a matter-of-fact No that set a clear limit: “I will not be working during weekends and holidays.” He ended with a Yes?—an invitation to the other to reach an agreement that respected his needs. “What I propose is that we find a new arrangement that gets the necessary work done in the office while I spend the time I need with my family.”
A Positive No, in short, is a Yes! No. Yes? The first Yes expresses your interests, the No asserts your power, and the second Yes furthers your relationship. A Positive No thus balances power and relationship in the service of your interests.
Note the distinction between the first Yes and the second Yes. The first Yes is internally focused—an affirmation of your interests; the second Yes is externally focused—an invitation to the other to come to an agreement that satisfies those interests.
The key to a Positive No is respect. What distinguishes a Positive No from accommodation is that you give respect to yourself and what is important for you. What distinguishes a Positive No from an attack is that you give respect to the other too as you say No to their demand or behavior. The Positive No works because as, in John’s words, you stand on your feet, not on their toes.
A Positive No can best be compared to a tree. The trunk is like your No—straight and strong. But just as a trunk is only the middle part of a tree, so your No is only the middle part of a Positive No. The roots from which the trunk emerges are your first Yes—a Yes to the deeper interests that sustain you. The branches and foliage that reach out from the trunk are your second Yes—a Yes that reaches out toward a possible agreement or relationship. The fruit is the positive outcome you seek.
Excerpted with permission from The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal, Save the Relationship – and Still Say No (William Ury, New York: Bantam, 2008).