With limited hours in the day, we face an uneasy truth: every time we say “yes” to a request, we’re effectively saying “no” to something else. So of course our time should be focused on the things that matter most. But a common obstacle to doing that is a desire to avoid awkward conversations. As one busy CEO admitted to me: “I don’t like conflict or feeling like I’m letting people down. So I find it hard to say no.” If that sounds familiar, and you find it difficult to extricate yourself from low-priority commitments for fear of offending people, learning how to deliver what’s known as a “positive no” is like discovering a new superpower—it gives you the ability to make everyone feel better about the choices you’re making (including yourself).
What’s the problem with a regular “no”?
To understand why it’s worth reinventing the way you say “no,” it first helps to know what happens to people’s brains when they’re facing something unpleasant.
Each person’s brain is constantly on the lookout for potential nearby threats. If it spots a problem, their brain works astonishingly fast to defend them by launching some kind of fight, flight or freeze response. Which is often a good thing. It’s what helps them jump out of the way of a speeding car, after all. But there are two issues with this inbuilt defensive reaction. The first is that it can be triggered by minor personal affronts – a frown, a challenging comment – as well as by genuine physical threats. (In the workplace, a “fight, flight or freeze” response might look like “snap, sulk or silence,” but it’s the same basic defensive mechanism playing out.) Second: while mounting this kind of defensive response, researchers have noticed that the brain reduces activity in the regions responsible for careful and sophisticated thinking. So it’s hard for anyone to be thoughtful, flexible or sensitive when they’re on the defensive.
And that’s a challenge when you consider our usual way of declining requests. We start with “I’m really sorry, I’m not going to be able to come to the meeting/take on the project/paint the self-portrait you commissioned…” It sounds polite. But starting with the negative signal of “I’m sorry,” however well meant, puts the other person on high alert. Their brain immediately goes into defensive mode: “You’re backing out! This is a threat!” And in this mode, people don’t have much capacity to be generous or sympathetic in understanding your priorities.
So what’s the alternative?
The “positive no” presents a helpful alternative. First articulated by William Ury, the co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, it lessens the sense of threat you’re presenting to someone, by starting with something genuinely positive and engaging (rather than immediately negative and annoying). Like this:
1. Start with warmth.
First, acknowledge and show appreciation for the person’s request. (It’s easy to forget to do this when we’re focused on our own discomfort about disappointing someone.)
2. Your “yes.”
Then, instead of starting with “I’m sorry…,” begin by enthusiastically highlighting whatever your positive priority is right now, and why it’s interesting, important, or meaningful to you. If possible, pick out a reason that will also resonate with the person you’re talking to.
3. Your “no.”
Explain that this means, with regret, that you can’t do the thing they’ve asked you to do. This is where you say “sorry,” as profusely as you like.
4. End with warmth.
Perhaps there’s a suggestion or offer you can make without detracting from your real priorities, such as an introduction to other people who could help. At the very least, you can offer some warm wishes for success in their project.
It works, even when they know how it works.
Here’s an example from a client of mine. Morgan had decided to reprioritize his time – as it happens, away from something he was doing for me. He was helping me lead a training course for his younger colleagues, but he needed to cut out for a couple of hours. Once, he would have sent me an email like this:
“Caroline, I’m very sorry to say that I’m going to have to leave early on June 23. I’ve now got a personal commitment that I really can’t move, which means I’ll have to leave at 4:00pm and won’t be able to stay till the end of the day’s session at 6:00pm as we’d planned. I’ll be back for the dinner, but I appreciate that this isn’t ideal for you – my apologies.”
But because I’d taught him the “positive no” technique a couple of years earlier, this was the email I got from him:
“Caroline, I’m looking forward to the course on June 23 [warmth]. I’m writing because I’ve just been invited to join my son in a “fathers and sons” baseball game that evening. It’s a special game because it’s the last time the seniors will play before moving on to high school. Having only one son, and just before he becomes a teenager, I’m particularly keen to make this game [his ‘yes’]. However, it means leaving at about 4pm (and returning for dinner). I appreciate this isn’t ideal for you, and I’m very sorry [his ‘no’]. One suggestion I have is that I ask Simon to cover me. He’s a great supporter of what we’re doing with the course. I would be happy to discuss [warmth].
The content of his positive no was essentially the same as a conventional no—a decision, an explanation, and an apology. And as soon as I started reading his message, I guessed something was afoot. But the tone of the two emails is quite different, isn’t it? The first is a pure downer, while the second is… strangely uplifting. My brain couldn’t help but be a little buoyed by Morgan’s upbeat comments about his son. And the truth is, I didn’t even realize what he’d done until I noticed feeling oddly serene about being left in the lurch. Like all good super-powers, the “positive no” works even when you’re in on the secret.