Getting to NO

No. It is the shortest sentence in the English language.
It is also one of the most important, and most difficult.
Why do we find it so difficult to say, “No,” when necessary?
Why do we experience so much resistance when we do say, “No”?
What can we do to strengthen our “No” and lead with integrity?

WHY is “No” so difficult? Because YES=Good and NO=Bad, that’s why.

Individuation – Yes is what we want to hear, and it is what we want to say. In fact, people like it so much that they frequently say, “Yes,” even when thinking and wanting to say “No.” We learned to say no at an early age – an essential step in human growth and development. Unfortunately, we were often met by resistance even then. We said “No” as toddlers, searching for our own unique voice in the world. The adults to whom we said it were typically not amused, and even when they were we still did not prevail. “No I won’t share.” “No I won’t eat that broccoli.” “No I won’t go to bed.” And each time we were overpowered, we lost. We needed, psychologically and emotionally, to say “No,” yet it rarely proved effective or brought us success. “Yes,” however, was often met by pleased faces and voices and even hugs or other rewards. Thus we like YES and avoid NO, to our peril.
Think back to your earliest memories of saying No and Yes. How did you feel, and which was reinforced?

Connection – Our next major developmental stage after awareness of our distinctness from others is belonging to a group. We experience belonging by sharing commonalities – similar likes and dislikes, interests, background and experiences, beliefs and values. Throughout this we are saying “Yes” to some things and “No” to others. We belong to the group to whom we say “Yes,” distinct from the groups to whom we say “No.” Again, our yes is reinforced, and we learn to avoid saying, “No” to the people with whom we want to associate.

Separation – A third developmental stage in this process is separating again, as we internalize authority and self-control. Here again, we practice the Yes and the No, with similar results. Yes to external authorities is reinforced, while No is typically resisted and even punished. This includes parents, school teachers and administrators, religious authorities, and the government. Yes to coaches and instructors is our preference when they are guiding us to accomplish something that we have set as an INTERNAL priority – i.e. “I want to be a starter on the football team,” or “I want to win a medal at the competition.”

What can we do? Focus on our internal priorities, and remember the above three lessons.

The key to delivering a No confidently and effectively, and one that is ultimately received well, lies in our ability to identify and pursue the core values and priorities behind our No. Why am I saying, “No,” to this opportunity? So that I can say yes to a different one. Thus, our No is rooted in a deeper Yes. This insight is articulated well by William Ury in his book The Power of A Positive No (Bantam 2007). He was previously the coauthor with Roger Fisher of Getting to Yes and Getting Past No. Our ability to focus on our internal yes does three things: 1) it clarifies why we are making the choice to say no; 2) it strengthens our ability to say no; 3) it informs our argument with the recipient of our No. Ury encourages us to utilize the progression: Yes, No, Yes. Be clear about our deeper Yes; Be firm about our no even in the face of resistance; Pursue mutual cooperation to create a new Yes that exceeds any prior options.

The first Yes: Remember your WASWhat’s At Stake?

We need to ask ourselves, “Why am I saying no?” What lies beneath and behind my choice? Am I protecting something (time, space, power, authority, another person or idea)? Am I wanting to advocate for an alternative? Do I even have the authority to say, “Yes,” to the request being made, or is that above my pay grade? Does my simple No help me to save face rather than openly acknowledge my limitation? This series of questions, and others like them, will help us better understand our motivation for saying no, which will either strengthen our no, or prompt us to reconsider another path forward rather than no. In either case, it is essential for us to ask: What’s at stake here?

The second Yes: Move from WAS to IS – create multiple Ideal Scenarios.

What do you want to see happen? In an ideal world, what do you wish you and others could/would do? What resources would be available? What structure in place to enable the work to be done? Imagine the scene in your mind – where are you and the other players? What is each one doing and saying? How does it feel? What is getting accomplished, by whom, how, where and why? What new positive outcomes are resulting in these Ideal Scenarios?
Now then, how do we articulate the WAS and move toward the IS?

Learning to TALK – strengthening communication skills facilitates the No.

TALK is an acronym – Tell, Ask, Listen, Know. It is a path forward for bridging a communication gap and helping to ensure that the conversation partners are clearly understanding one another.

  • Tell – Describe and explain how you see the situation, and communicate why you are saying No. You will want to have clarity on your Deeper Yes at this point – you decide whether or not to share it.
  • Ask – Invite others to respond with further articulation of their goals, and any counterpoints to your statement of no. Ask follow-up questions, not to tear down or argue, but simply to gain greater insight and show respect (the same respect that you would want and hope for your own position).
  • Listen – Actively seek to both hear and understand the other person’s point of view. Do not spend your mental energy formulating a response – rather focus on what message the other person is sending.
  • Know – create a common understanding, a shared knowledge by:1) restating what you think you heard; 2) Identifying possible areas of shared value or belief; 3) acknowledge differences without judging.

Why Talk – Using TALK 1) helps keep the lines of communication open; 2) makes your No more palatable; 3) may shed new light on the situation thereby changing your position; 4) clears the way for a future story to emerge. As we Ask and Listen, it may be helpful to paraphrase and repeat back what we hear the other person saying, being careful to acknowledge and honor the others’ position without conceding our own. “I want to be sure I am understanding your position (concerns, goals, fears, hopes, intentions, etc). What I hear you saying is… (and rephrase what you understand the other person to be saying, in your own words). Have I stated that correctly, and what would you add or modify?”

And, we still need to remember that the developmental principles are at work in every one of us all the time. The ultimate goal is a YES that everyone can say and embrace. At the point the first No becomes necessary, all of those early lessons begin to emerge. “No” can be received as a threat to my identity and autonomy. No can undermine my authority. No can signal rejection and prompt a downward spiral for those who suffer with self-esteem issues. We all want to know that we belong somewhere, that we have a place, and that we are wanted, particularly in the places and among the people with whom we spend the most time. Communicating well includes helping ourselves and our partners feel that it is safe to be honest.

How to Tell? Use The / I / WeTo help you move toward safety, remember The / I / We. The facts are/were… I felt/thought/experienced… We can accomplish together… This helps us avoid projecting our feelings onto other people, and keeps the conversation focused on what happened (or is likely to happen) and how we are experiencing that, rather than presuming to name other people’s thoughts or motivations. Naming our own experience creates an open space for the others in conversation to feel safe to articulate their positions. The more we communicate, the more likely we are to arrive a solution.

Don’t “SHOULD” on me – recognizing the useful limits and boundaries of controlling others.

None of us want to be controlled or manipulated. Often rooted in the struggle to say No and the resistance to hearing it is a need for autonomy, self-determination and authority. We say No in an effort to maintain our position. We resist No for the same reasons. One common ploy in these situations is the use of “should” as in “You should do this…” Even when this seems empirically true – as in, “You should wear your seatbelt,” or “You should not smoke,” the phrase prompts instant and deep resistance in many people. For this reason, the use of “should” creates more difficulties than it resolves, makes negotiations through No to Yes even more difficult, and so we try to avoid it. Notice even in this paragraph we try to avoid saying, “You should not say should,” both because it would be ironic, and because it is more productive to articulate positive reasons for making an alternate choice than simply stating, “You should…”

From BUT to AND – Resist Either/Or dualistic thinking.

Unless we are surrounded by complete moronic incompetence, each person has ideas and intentions that are of worth and value to the group, and we will want to acknowledge them as such. The frequent use of the word “but” has the effect of negating what preceded it, both when we use it in response to another’s statement, and when we use it to join two statements of our own. If I say, “I really liked the meal, BUT it could have used more salt,” the cook is likely to hear, “That meal was bland and I did not care for it.” However, if I simply replace “but” with “and” the tone shifts and the focus moves from past and present into the future – “I liked the meal this way, AND I think it could also be nice to try it another way.”

We do not live in a binary, black/white, yes/no, good/bad, either/or world. We are surrounded by a multiplicity of options that are embedded with paradox. Often we are presented with the opportunity to choose from among very good or very bad options. In these situations, things are not as clear cut as we would like. When we are presented with a request or proposal to which we respond, “No,” we may want to look and listen for what we can affirm, where we can say, “Yes,” at the same time. Perhaps the issue is timing, and the answer is honestly, “No, not right now, but perhaps later.” This is easier to hear, and even more so if we can also add some rational rooted in our deeper yes – “No, I cannot accommodate that request right now because I am not taking on any new clients for the next few months. To do so would stretch me beyond the ability to provide quality service to anyone, which is one of my top priorities and core values. AND, let me check back with you in three months.” The potential client gains understanding of our integrity and commitments, which they will likely appreciate and which may bring them back with future business even more enthusiastically.

Sometimes, No just means No…
When this happens, we need to be able to say our No calmly, with clarity and conviction. We do not want to defend or attack, cede ground or aggressively advance to conquer others. Some requests are simply unreasonable, others are reasonable but unanswerable in the present circumstances. Delivering a No stirs confusing and troubling energy, whatever our reasons. How do we make the best of a bad situation?

Thermostat or Thermometer? Managing anxiety in yourself and others.

We want to be liked. Whether we are the giver or receiver of a “No,” anxiety is a common instinctive response. Consciously or not, the following inner dialogue emerges: “If I say/receive a no, then that means the other person is not happy with me. I want everyone to be happy with me and like me, because that makes my life easier, and because it is nice to be liked. Therefore, I need to try to change the No to a Yes somehow.” This inner dialogue has been rehearsed since we were in diapers, to the point that we can do it in seconds without conscious thought. Typically then, we react in an attempt to counter the growing anxiety we sense in ourselves and in others. We become a thermometer, continually taking the internal and external temperatures and reactively rising or falling.

The more mature approach is to develop the skills of a thermostat, which is set by choice and then manages the temperature around it. Anxiety has both innate and learned factors – some people, families and organizations are simply more anxious than others. Regardless, all of us can learn and practice skills to do better, at least by a few degrees.

There are times when we feel unable to offer a reason for our no. Perhaps, as with parents of young children, the real reasons are not intelligible or appropriate for the recipients’ level of understanding or maturity. When the child knocks on her parent’s locked bedroom on Saturday morning asking, “May I come in?” the awkward and slightly delayed reply comes back, “No, honey, not right now.” “Why not?” the child inquires. Well, at this point the parents do some quick thinking and deciding. The full reason why the child may not come in is inappropriate to share, and honestly is none of her business. All she needs to know is, “No, not right now. We will be out soon.” The child may not be satisfied with this, but it at least buys a little time until arrangements can be made to offer a different response.

In another situation, the politics of an organization may prevent us from providing a complete explanation with our no, as when a purchase of the business is being negotiated and revealing this information would potentially undermine the deal. Alternately, in your position you may honestly not know the “why” behind the “No” that you are delivering – it is simply what you received from the chain of command. You may share the frustration of those who are making the request. Whether it is appropriate to convey your own feelings requires mature reflection.

Our leadership in these situations and others requires that we remain calm, reflect honestly, and respond with integrity. But how do we remain calm, when internally we are anything but? Once you have worked through everything above, you may still be feeling highly anxious and struggling not to react and escalate the situation. You know what you ought to do, even what you want to do, but you fear that you just can’t.

Give yourself Permission to Pauseand decide how you will claim that space. It is ok to say, “You know, I need a few minutes. Let me get back to you on this.” Use that time to gather more information, to expend some energy by taking a walk, to ask for another opinion, or simply to settle your thoughts and feelings. One familiar bit of wisdom is to “Count to 10,” the purpose of which is to force this pause. If you are counting you are not reacting. An alternate method is to Pray the Pausepray for yourself, for the other person, for the organization or individuals. Ancient wisdom has recognized that it is difficult to be angry with or aggressive toward those for whom we are praying, toward whom we have positive and compassionate thoughts. However we achieve them, a settled and centered mind and heart make us far more likely to respond with humility and grace during difficult conversations and contentious interactions.

Here are a few additional skills to keep in mind: 1) Anticipate and work through likely challenges. Imagine situations where you will need to say no, and think through what and how you will do so. 2) Practice saying no – privately and with others. You develop something like the muscle memory that top athletes acquire – hours of practice help the proper responses to become ingrained and instinctive. 3) Form a Peer Learning Community – a group of colleagues, who share similar experiences, where you can help one another understand and commit to best practices. 4) Role Play – bring the anticipated challenges and the practice saying no to your peer group and take turns as requester and responder. This lets you work through what you will say, and deal with your anxiety in advance. Once you have done it in practice, you will find it much easier to do when the pressure is on. 5) Study – seek any additional learning you can do through books, articles, online sources, webinars, workshops and conferences. New information brought back into conversation with peers will continually deepen your learning and strengthen your skills.

Getting to No can be a positive, rewarding and even productive process if we keep in mind these principles. We will do well to also remember that we are all learning and growing. We will get it wrong and need second chances. When we integrate the lessons learned from our mistakes, everyone benefits. To learn more, log onto and begin at the Training and Resources tabs.

Why Lead with Integrity?
The Lead with Integrity Series assists leaders in the ongoing tasks of personal and professional improvement and development. The best we have to offer others is to be our best. Providing quality leadership in any setting always begins through a journey within. As a result, I also gain greater insight into the actions of others, and have more patience, understanding and compassion with and for them – resulting in greater effectiveness. Integrating leadership development, emotional and relationship maturity, and a spiritual foundation brings greater vitality and harmony to every aspect of our leadership and life. The Lead with Integrity Series from Synchronous Life provides essential tools for success, whether your measure is increased profits, healthy relationships with people, or a higher life purpose. Contact us for a consultation to discuss how Synchronous Life can strengthen your individual and organizational effectiveness, increase your profitability, and enhance your quality of life.

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