Reading Group: The Power of a Positive No

As I mentioned previously, I’ve been running a reading group for the managers and leads on my teams. We just finished The Power of a Positive No, which was written by one of the authors of the highly influential Getting to Yes. This had been recommended to me by a member of TripAdvisor senior management, who described it as a book he tried to re-read every year – high praise!

The False Dichotomy

It’s hard to say no. Especially when it’s to someone we care about, or someone who has power over us. We fear that saying no will damage the relationship, but saying yes when we shouldn’t will hurt our own interests, and potentially lead to a worse result for everyone involved. These are pretty bad choices – stand up for our interests at the cost of the relationship, or give in to the demand at the cost of our interests. The book seeks to find a way out of this false dichotomy, by presenting a way to defend our interests without damaging the relationship.

Dancing by the Numbers

I used to do a fair amount of social dance – swing, lindy hop, Argentine tango – and one of my (many) problems was the inability to remember which moves I knew. Not the steps themselves – if you told me the name of a move, or reminded me that I knew something, I knew how to do it – I just couldn’t remember which moves I knew. I used to joke that I should give every move a number, and memorize the name of the move with the number, so that if I found myself falling back on the same basic steps, I could just choose a random number and do that instead.

The problem with complex strategies is that it’s impossible to remember what you’re supposed to do in the heat of battle. So authors frequently come up with acronyms and hope that this helps when things fall apart. But this is a lot to ask of the barely sentient mess we become when thrust into an emotional situation. Having a simple, easy-to-remember strategy is better than having a complicated, theoretically more effective strategy that you’ll never use.

Whereas the last book we read took a broad-brush approach and had a variety of strategies with hard to remember acronyms, The Power of a Positive No was focused on one specific problem – telling someone “no” – and had exactly one approach. It called this “Yes-No-Yes,” and its power is in its simplicity.

Triple Step

“No” can be abrupt. It’s a rejection, and it can seem arbitrary or harsh. The book proposes a three step process that provides context, then the refusal, and lastly, an alternative. Here are the steps:

  • Yes

The first step is to identify your interests. Why are you going to say no? Is the deadline unreasonable? Are you too busy? Do you have conflicting responsibilities? Is there a more attractive alternative? Do you find the request unpleasant, or simply not want to? Ultimately, you need to understand what interest you’re defending – whether or not you choose to share this with the other party, understanding your first “yes”, the positive statement of self-interest that drives your actions, is critical for several reasons. First, it helps you to strengthen your resolve, and helps you avoid getting sidetracked. Second, if you choose to share your reason, it can help the other party to understand why you’re responding this way.

  • No

Once you have your yes (and, potentially, have shared it), you’re ready to say no. The book gives many examples of wordings, but the key point is that you are firm, straightforward, and precise. Whether or not you like them, and whether or not you respect them, you speak respectfully – it costs you nothing, protects the relationship, greatly increases the likelihood that the other party will be willing to engage, and ultimately demonstrates your respect for yourself. Petty, sarcastic, snide, disrespectful comments can damage the relationship, decrease the impact of your refusal, and make it less likely that the other person will accept your no.

  • Yes

The last yes is an alternative option. It must be genuine, and serves the purpose of redirecting the conversation to a potential win-win scenario. The base salary isn’t negotiable, but perhaps we can do something on equity. I don’t have time today, but I can help if you can wait until tomorrow.

You don’t always want to share your first yes. You might not always have an alternative. Sometimes, as the author says, “no” is a complete sentence. But understanding and focusing on your own interests (the first yes) is critical for making sure the outcome is one you can live with, and having an alternative can completely change the direction of the conversation.

There is, however, one little problem. Sometimes, the other party won’t play along.

When No Isn’t Enough

In any negotiation, it’s important to know what you’ll do if the negotiation falls through. You can’t compell the other side to agree, so what’s your next best option? This is called BATNA, or Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement. Having good BATNA gives you a lot of power – it’s easy to walk away when you don’t need the deal. Bad BATNA, on the other hand, makes you weak – if your alternative is bad, there’s a lot of pressure to make a deal – any deal. BATNA isn’t a fallback position, and doesn’t require the other side to agree – in fact, it’s what you do when the other side won’t agree. Sometimes you want to share this, sometimes not, but you need to know what you’re going to do if the other party won’t stop a negative behavior, threatens retribution, or insists on an undesirable outcome.

A Last Word

The book was good, and reinforces a key idea in our last book – i.e., to start by identifying your own interests, and keeping them at the forefront of your decision-making process. In Crucial Conversations, this was far more situational (i.e., what do I want out of this conversation?). In The Power of a Positive No, it’s existential (what do I want out of life, and how does this prevent it?). Both books are highly actionable, and seem immediately useful. Reading is one thing, of course, doing another. No excuses – the challenge now is to put all of this into practice.

Next up for the group: Your Brain at Work

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