No is the new yes: Workplace communication must-have


Nancy makes it look easy

When I see something three times in three days I figure it will be useful to say something about it. What’s dropped by so often? No.

It started Friday. I was talking with a dear friend and colleague I lunch with regularly for peer coaching.  (BTW, if you lead anything – including your own life – and you don’t have a practice buddy like this, run go get one now. Insanely valuable.) It quickly became obvious that my buddy and I were looking for counsel around the same thing.

We both needed to remember that NO is actually a big, fat YES  to something else. We needed to get crystal clear about our deeper yeses so we could be more strategic, skillful and confident with our no’s.

Imagine this

Your boss or a colleague or someone you value comes to you and makes a request. It might be to talk about a new project, to get your input on a dilemma they’re facing, or to take on a stretch assignment.  You can think of one billion reasons it would be good for them, good for your career, and a good use of the experience and talent you have to offer, to say yes. What you also know because you are getting that creeping, gnawing tightness in your belly, is that saying yes is going to tip the balance of what’s on your already full plate.

Some people –and you may be one of them–have absolutely no problem saying,” I have to give that a pass this time. Too much going on. Good luck!”

Others face a very common, and very human, dilemma. We can feel the other person’s hopes, needs, sometimes desperation, on the other end of this interaction. We care about them, and we also care about continuing to have a positive, collaborative relationship with them. (We may also feel a bit hooked by our own desire to create value – but that’s another blog post.)

Same situation, different flavor: You have an employee who is on a management rack, but their behavior isn’t meeting the team standard. Their weekly outcome reports are late, and they are out of the office in the mornings or afternoons without letting anyone know how to reach them or putting backup in place. You have already had one curious, facilitative conversation with them: You pointed out the behavior, described the impact and lack of alignment with team expectations, and inquired about what was going on.  They started in with excuses, but ultimately promised it wouldn’t happen again.

Now it’s the end of the next week, and once again their paperwork isn’t complete.

Work as we (often) know it: The anxiety factory

anxiety shirtIf we slow down enough to think about it, we might also see that one of the strongest forces in organizational behavior is the avoidance of feeling anxiety – ours, or theirs, or both. There are many, many competing commitments to juggle, and many of them are driven by (or cause) anxiety. The situations above are just some of them.

As Gervase Bushe points out in Clear Leadership, the two most common reactions to the mild or severe clash of needs you’re experiencing in the moment are to:

  • Fuse (do what you need to do to reduce their anxiety), or
  • Disconnect (shut down or push back with an edge, to protect yourself from your anxiety)

A big part of what’s at play here – besides our own complex algorithm of values, dreams, and day-to-day priorities and constraints – is a deeply human paradox. We want to be connected, to belong. And we want to express our unique, individual needs and selves.

So, for the big money, here’s the question

How do we say no to the request or behavior, and still say yes to the relationship?

HL4763-001Enter William Ury. (No, not the guy who wrote that profound page-turner, Exodus. That’s Leon Uris. I’ve gotten their names confused, too.) Our William Ury is co-author of the be-all, end-all book on negotiation, Getting to Yes, and a long-time leader in the Harvard Negotiation Project. Ury has spent a career around the world helping people productively get past the frustrating, frozen position of wanting something different from each other. His more recent work, The Power of a Positive No, digs down into the solutions he’s facilitated between world leaders, rebels, the powerful and the vengeful, to show us the core dynamics beneath them.

If Ury were in our shoes, experiencing what we’ve described, he would move the situation forward with a positive no.

What is a positive no?

A positive no is a yes/no/yes.  And it is both simpler, and more difficult, than it first appears.

“Let’s get together for coffee. I’d like to hear more about the work you’ve been doing and tell you about my ideas. I’ve been using some of your stuff with my stakeholders and they are really getting traction.”

  1. YES (affirm what you value – this may be a value you hold, or an aspect of the situation you can genuinely join with): “How great the work is having such a positive impact.”
  2. NO (clearly establish a guardrail or limit): “Unfortunately, I can’t put anything else on my schedule for the next while without compromising some important commitments I’ve already made.” OR “My plate is full, so I’m afraid I’ll need to say no.”
  3. YES (invite a way forward that truly supports your needs): “I would like to stay in flow with what you’re learning and doing. How about checking in again in a few months?” Or, “I’ve attached a white paper that talks about some of what I’ve been thinking lately. If you have thoughts about it or experiences to share, how about posting them to the blog?” Or simply, “Here is a website where I know some of these conversations are happening, and they will benefit from engagement and curiosity like yours. My best to you.”

What gets you to a really good yes/no/yes?

Start by getting clear – I mean CLEAR – about what you want and need to do your best work in the world. So for the manager above…

  • Big-picture, long-term, over the next six months, in the next 30 days: What has to be true for you to fully realize what you care about? I want to grow strong, disciplined performers on my team, so we can continue to do stellar work.
  • What is the boundary or limit you need to set? Not getting reports done on time isn’t acceptable from someone in this role. Neither are gaps in coverage. This needs to change in the next month, or we will both need to change how we’re thinking about the track this person is on.
  • Finally, what’s your invitation to move forward – an invitation that supports your yes and enables your no? I need him to be responsible for making this change. What I can do is mentor for a period of time, and help make visible to both of us what is happening.

Here’s what that could sound like:

YES: “I want to help you succeed in our company, and grow the skills to be a manager.”

NO: “To do that, as you know, you’ll need to get your weekly reporting in on time and make sure you have continuous coverage.”

YES: “Why don’t you spend some time thinking about what changes you’ll need to make to nail these goals, and we can meet tomorrow to talk about your ideas. Then, we’ll get check-ins on the calendar for the next 30 days to watch progress together.”

Because here’s the bottom line

Every time you say YES to something, you are saying NO to something else. I know, it may sound obvious, or thwarting, but it’s just math.

Would you rather say yes to anxiety (theirs or yours), or yes to what you want to create in the world?

I’d be curious to hear your experiences and reactions – including a yes/no/yes to this post! Send ’em.

Images courtesy paleopioneer.comReg Speller/Hulton Archive, love__lifee on

2 thoughts on “No is the new yes: Workplace communication must-have

  1. Adding on to your step 1: “Start by getting clear – I mean CLEAR – about what you want and need to do your best work in the world”: A creative director I greatly respect once told me, “You can’t say ‘no’ unless you have a bigger ‘yes’ inside you.” This was in the context of responding to creative critique, but I find it applies to work and personal life, too.

    Knowing what you (really, truly, passionately) want or need is not so easy all the time…how about a follow up post? 😉

  2. Noel, I love this – “You can’t say ‘no’ unless you have a bigger ‘yes’ inside you.” I will happily accept your nudge for a follow-up post – great idea. Watch this space…

Comments are closed.