Getting to No

As lawyers, we are trained to be adversaries, but more and more we are also trained to work collaboratively. Litigation is expensive and time consuming. Alternative dispute resolution is almost always a preferred method of dealing with a dispute, and in that vein, we have all read the book “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The book promises a:

proven strategy for coming to mutually acceptable agreements in every sort of conflict – whether it involves parents and children, neighbors, bosses and employees, customers or corporations, tenants or diplomats.

There is good reason this book is almost required reading for lawyers. Getting to yes is what it’s all about because that’s where resolution lays. We come to apply this same approach to all aspects of our profession. When your client calls with a request, say yes. When your superiors ask you to do something, say yes. Only by saying yes will you please everybody and move up the ladder of success.

The book’s promise extends past the work on our desks and into every other facet of our lives. But at what cost? When “yes” becomes the default word out of our mouths we have lost control of our lives and our ability to balance. While getting to yes is an important lesson, once learned, we need to also remember how to “get to no”.

Whether the request comes from a client, a colleague, a friend or a family member, automatically saying yes brings instant gratification. The person making the request is happy, you are happy you made them happy, everyone wins. Or so you think. Consider the long term negative outcomes:

  • – You find yourself with an every growing list of commitments that you can’t possibly fulfill. You feel the pressure of promises made weighing on you. You try to do it all, and end up either doing only half well, or all poorly. That win-win situation has now turned into a lose-lose because you are stressed and resentful and the person who made the request in the first place either didn’t get the task done or didn’t get it done as well as it should have been.
  • – Your professional reputation is at stake. If you are bombarded with requests, chances are that you have developed a reputation for being approachable and dependable. As the yeses pile up however and you fail to perform with the same quality and timeliness, your reputation changes to approachable but unreliable.
  • – The person who asked you to do something may very well be capable of doing it themselves and will never learn how because you are always willing to say yes. Getting to no allows you to delegate and teach. It makes you a better leader.

Saying no when appropriate allows you to focus your energy on things that matter most to you, allows you to do those things as well as you know you are capable of, empowers others around you, and hey, you might even be able to sleep at night!

The fact of the matter is, saying no is far more difficult than saying yes. No is a very powerful word, and admit it – the people who can say no in a manner that is not abrupt, offensive or off-putting are some of the most powerful people you will meet. While I’m still working on this skill myself, here are a few tips I’ve found to be useful:

  • – Don’t be wishy-washy. “Ummm, I’m not sure” means you are thinking about it and will give in eventually. For your own sake as well as that of the person making the request, be clear and direct.
  • – Don’t feel you have to provide excuses. The longer your explanation, the more fabricated it sounds. “I’m sorry, but I have other obligations that will not allow me to commit to that” is all you need. As opposed to: “Gee, I’d like to help you but my spouse’s cousin needs us to take her dog to the vet because her mother is in the hospital…..”. If you are a reliable and dependable person, other people should be able to assume that when you say you have a good reason you can’t do something, you mean it, with no explanation required.
  • – Don’t feel you have to have excuses. The example above was about not needing to explain your “other obligation”. What if you don’t have another obligation and you just don’t feel this is something you should be doing? That’s okay too. Be honest. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is a task that is best suited to me. Perhaps you should approach Joan down the hall. I understand she is good at that.” You aren’t struggling with something you have no business doing in the first place, Joan gets the chance to prove herself, and the person making the request gets a job done by someone who knows how as opposed to someone trying to figure out how. Now that’s a win-win-win!
  • – Be tactful. Saying no can be interpreted as meaning you don’t believe in the cause or you don’t think the task is important enough for your attention. Make sure the person knows you respect what they are doing, but simply can’t commit yourself to it.
  • – Say it once, and stick to it! Saying no and then relenting when asked a second (or third) time won’t get you anywhere. Once you say no, you have to stick with it. As anyone with children knows all too well, the minute you show weakness, you’re a goner.

Over-commitment is the bane of the existence of just about any professional. It takes a strong, confident person to avoid the trap. Consider each request carefully; take on the challenges that will mean something to you, and train yourself to “get to no”. This is a lesson that I have heard for many years from those more wise than I. This is a lesson I have only now, after 16 years of practice, just begun to understand.

“It’s only by saying no that you can get to the things that are really important.” – Steve Jobs


By Cheryl A. Canning, Partner, Burchells LLP; Atlantic Provinces Representative and Secretary/Treasurer for LPAC


  1. “There is good reason this book is almost required reading for lawyers”? Meaning that it isn’t required reading at all?