Positive sides to delivering a firm but polite refusal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2007, 12:00am

It's a small yet forceful word, but there are many ways to express it without causing negative reactions

If you find yourself murmuring a polite 'yes' when what you really want to communicate is a resounding 'no', a three-step programme may help. William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No, states that neither ethnic nor cultural origin is a major factor if people are reluctant to unleash a seemingly rude 'no'.

'While saying no is a universal process, it can take different forms depending on the local culture,' he writes.

'At the same time, I believe that the basic principles of a positive no apply across different cultures, understanding that the particular techniques for implementing the principles will vary somewhat from culture to culture.'

'No may be said in different ways in Asia compared to the west, but the important thing is to communicate this refusal in whatever way local customs require.

Given that possibly the most powerful word in the English language is potentially its most destructive, no is sometimes a surprisingly difficult word to say regardless of your gender, ethnic background or social status.

Dr Ury's latest work gives people the tools to tackle the daily dilemma of using no correctly. He believes this will give them the ability to transform their lives.

The Harvard social anthropologist asserts that even if readers have mastered the art of saying yes, they will be unable to emit the right sort of yes until they know how to say no - be it to bosses, clients or even their nearest and dearest.

Dr Ury is also a professional negotiation specialist at the university's programme on arbitration and has experience in dealing with corporate conflicts, family disputes and war prevention.

With this in mind, the book is split into three sections, the first of which is devoted to preparing to say no, the second to delivering the word itself and the final section to following through and staying true to what you have said.

Above all the author is driven by the desire to deal with differences in ways better than destructive arguments and fights. As a result, the 'positive no' referred to in the book's title refers to the need to tell people no in a way which is not only powerful but also respectful - a need which can crop up in every area of life.

'All too often, we cannot bring ourselves to say no when we want to and know we should ... Or we do say no, but say it in a way that blocks agreement and destroys relationships,' Dr Ury says. 'We submit to inappropriate demands, injustice, even abuse - or we engage in destructive fighting in which everyone loses.'

The author believes that the most immediate and pressing need is for people to be able to say the word no in a positive way that enables them to stand up for what they value without destroying relationships.

'No is of equal importance to yes and, indeed, is the precondition to saying yes effectively,' he says. 'You cannot truly say yes to one request if you cannot say no to others ... No, in this sense, comes before yes.' The author has based this book, his eighth, on a popular Harvard course for managers and professionals, while previous works include books on negotiation and conflict prevention.

Dr Ury's book follows on from previous works on the subject, such as his ground-breaking and best-selling Getting to Yes, co-authored with Roger Fisher and written on the subject of adversarial conflict and co-operative negotiation.

Getting Past No, the second book in his yes/no series, acknowledged that while getting to yes is a challenge, it was almost impossible on occasion to utter an appropriate no. This final part of the trilogy of books on the subject co-opts its predecessors in examining how to assert and defend one's own interests through the successful use of the word no.

Engagingly written, despite being peppered with a dizzying number of yeses and nos throughout, the book presents the theory of a positive no in clear, narrative style, boosted by the occasional bulleted list and ample case studies and stories.

Book The Power of a Positive No

Author William Ury, PhD

Publisher Hodder & Stoughton

Five Insights

1 'According to the sages of ancient India, there are three fundamental processes at work in the universe: creation, preservation and transformation,' writes William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No. 'Saying no is essential to all three processes'. Indeed, 'If you can learn how to say no skilfully and wisely, you can create what you want, protect what you value and change what doesn't work.'

2 Perhaps the single biggest mistake people make when they say no is to start from No. 'We derive our no from what we are against - the other's demand or behaviour,' Dr Ury comments. A positive no, on the other hand, calls on people to do the exact opposite and base their no on what they are for. 'Instead of starting from no, start from Yes,' he adds.

3 What is the worst thing another person can do to you if you say no to them? 'If [someone] is not going to literally kill me, [you're] probably going to survive. [You'll] be OK,' the author explains. Once this scenario is clear, it is much easier to relax and negotiate.

4 'It is not easy to say no, especially if you have an important relationship with the other [person],' Dr Ury advises. 'One way to soften the blow of the no for them, and thus make it easier for you to say no in these circumstances, is to locate your no in time. In other words, use the magic phrase 'Not now'.'

5 The person you are dealing with may need time to process your no. In the author's opinion, by saying no you are presenting someone with a new and unpleasant reality. 'Understanding that there [is] a series of emotional stages people naturally go through when hearing bad news can help you learn how to handle the other's reaction.'