The Power of a Positive No

by Meredith Craft

How a smaller No can lead to a bigger Yes.

I want to talk to you about a word we all use multiple times per day. It’s controversial yet powerful. And it’s a word that I’ve been trying to incorporate into my personal and professional life. That word is No.

Why is no so hard?

While saying No is something that I’ve always struggled with in my personal life, I’ve found that the real battle for me is saying no in my professional life.

  • How do I say No and still get my work done on time?
  • How do I say No and still be a good teammate and asset to my company?
  • And how do I say No and keep clients happy?

This has been a fear of mine for as long as I can remember. I can’t pinpoint the adoption of this behavior to a specific moment in my childhood, but it’s probably something I should explore further… but that’s for another time and place.

There are a lot of books on the topic of No but a few months ago I found The Power of a Positive No by William Ury. Ury had previously written a book called “Getting to Yes.” I thought, who better to take advice from on how to say No than the guy who wrote a book about Yes?

According to Ury, “Whether and how we say No determines the very quality of our lives. It is perhaps the most important word for us to learn how to say gracefully and effectively.”

At the heart of the difficulty in saying No is the tension between exercising our power and tending to our relationships. Exercising our power may strain your relationship while tending to our relationship may weaken our power. Luckily, there’s a way out of this trap… a Positive No.


Defined: A Positive No challenges the assumption that either you can use power to get what you want (at the cost of the relationship) or you can use relationship (at the cost of power). It calls on you to use both at the same time, engaging the other in a constructive and respectful confrontation.

The Positive No is a three-part formula:

Yes! + No. + Yes? = Positive No

Let’s break it down.

Yes! The single biggest mistake we make when we say No is to start from No. We derive our No from what we are against. A Positive No calls on us to do the exact opposite and root our No in a Deeper Yes — to your core interests and to what truly matters: spending time with family and friends, making time for exercise, or getting a good nights rest. Ask yourself what it is you’re trying to protect. Shift from being reactive and focused on No, to being proactive and focused on Yes.

No. This is the most difficult part of the process. Nos intentionally or unintentionally reject the other person and they take that rejection personally. They hear, “You and your interests don’t count.” Ury argues that the secret is not to reject them but to respect them. People are more likely to respect our interests if we respect theirs. The easiest ways to show respect is to listen and acknowledge the other person when saying No.

Yes? The first Yes in the formula is an affirmation of our core interests. The second Yes in the formula is an invitation to a positive outcome. Yes after your No shows respect for the other person and their needs. They will be much more likely to accept our No and agree to our interests if we can figure out a way to address theirs.


Instead of focusing on your Nos, I encourage you to write down your Yesses — the things you want to protect, and keep this list top of mind. There are going to be times when you have to say No and by having this list ready, it will strengthen your No and hopefully make it easier to deliver.

Upon finishing Ury’s book, I realized I was craving a step-by-step guide on how to say No effectively in every situation I could possibly imagine. But then I realized that I’m trying to change a behavior that is so rooted in who I am, and that isn’t something that can be changed overnight. So naturally, I started to panic…until I got to the end of the book and read this:

Changing old patterns takes practice. Fortunately, each of us is offered many opportunities a day to practice saying No. Think of it like exercise. You are building your Positive No muscle. With daily exercise, that muscle will get stronger and stronger. With practice and reflection, anyone can improve greatly at the art of saying No.”

Start to pay attention to how you say No. Keep track of when you say No well and when you don’t. Determine who you have the hardest time saying No to. Watch out for your unhealthy Yeses and unhealthy Nos. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Then try again. After all, practice makes a perfectly executed Positive No.

Watch my 10-min talk above!

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