Mastering the Positive No

Time is at a premium. The pressures of the billable hour and the stress of meeting client needs and expectations are reaching an all time high. With all the developments in communication technology the boundaries between our home and work environments have eroded. We can now be reached by cell phone and email anywhere in the world and at anytime. Setting and respecting our boundaries is more difficult then ever. No is today’s biggest challenge.

So what’s a legal professional to do?

Look no further for your answer than The Power of a Positive No by William Ury. Ury is the Director of Harvard University’s Global Negotiation Project. He is a negotiator, mediator, professor and author. Over the last 30 years, Ury has served as a negotiation adviser and mediator in conflicts ranging from corporate mergers to ethnic wars in the Middle East, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. When it comes to learning how to wield an effective and powerful No there is no better teacher than Ury.

What makes it so difficult?

“The most powerful and needed word in the language today is also potentially the most destructive and, for many people, the hardest to say” says Ury.

Have you or has someone you know ever been in one of these situations?

At the practice group meeting Mary is appointed to write an article on a topic she has no interest in and knows little about.

Mark is assigned to the Real Property group when he really wants to be in the Corporate Commercial practice.

John works for a partner who is completely disorganized and is repeatedly handing him work to do at the very last minute. The partner’s bad file management becomes John’s emergency.

The reason so many of us struggle with saying No in these and other circumstances is because of the consequences we fear will follow:

The relationship will be jeopardized.
It could threaten our job security.
The other side might retaliate.
Or we feel guilty – we don’t want to hurt the other person or let them down.

People most frequently respond to conflict in ways which Ury describes as the as the Three A Trap – Accommodate, Attack, Avoid.

When we accommodate we are accepting a situation or behavior and sacrificing our own interests. This often leads to higher levels of personal stress and frustration.

When we stand our ground and deliver a strong No regardless of the consequences it can come across an attack. This results in negative fallout — broken trust, a fractured relationship or damaged reputation.

Avoiding conflict means failing to address the issue at all. This is the old head in the sand approach. Ignored problems just get worse over time.

The way out

There is a way out of this trap — Ury’s Positive No. To give the Positive No a try have in mind a situation you would like to say No to, and work through each of the steps as you read along.

The Positive No works in three stages:

Setting a Limit
Making a Proposal


The first stage involves uncovering your best interests. What are the values, needs, and priorities that support you to say Yes to yourself and No to the situation? You build a foundation for your position by emphasizing the positive values and actions you wish to support.

In Mark’s case above he can’t see a future for himself in Real Property. He likes his colleagues in the group but finds the work itself boring. He has an interest in business and wants to build a practice as a Corporate Commercial solicitor. Mark values his career. He has specific career goals. He knows he has to start developing this practice now or he risks falling behind.

Setting a limit:

Now it is time to engage in some contingency planning. If saying No does not work out as you hope, what is the next best option? The answer to this question is your Plan B. This is the action you are prepared to take should the initial No meet with rejection.

Plan B for Mark is that if the firm is inflexible he is prepared to look for work elsewhere.

Strategically developing a plan B will give you confidence and power. Your No is supported with a strategic fall back position.

Now equipped with the back-up plan you are ready to deliver your No. Open the discussion by listening attentively. Listening gives you an opportunity to learn more about the situation, demonstrate respect and to prepare the other person to receive your No. Next, offer your own statement about the values and interests you are seeking to protect.

In the above situation Mark will give his mentor the opportunity to first express his views. After listening to his mentor Mark will deliver his explanation of why the transfer to Corporate Commercial is so important to him.

Presentation of a proposal:

After you have delivered your committed and respectful no, the next step is to suggest an alternate solution. This is the action that protects the relationship, and emphasizes your commitment.

In Mark’s case he suggests an interim measure – a slow transition out of Real Property taking place over six months. He offers to work extra hours in order to support the group while they recruit and train a new junior.

Sounds easier than it is

The Power of a Positive No is a valuable resource for all professionals. Mastering the ability to say No takes time and practice but following Ury’s guidance anyone can master the Positive No.

What you say No to can be one of the most powerful forces for developing your practice. It is essential to take control and protect the time and energy you need for your priorities while maintaining positive professional and personal relationships. There is no one else who is going to take a stand for your interests. It’s up to you.

[W. Ury The Power of a Positive No: How to Say NO and Still Get To YES. (New York, NY: 2007, Bantam Dell.]

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