Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Power of a Positive No by William Ury








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One of the authors of the classic Getting To Yes has returned with another book about the negotiation process titled, The Power of a Positive No. Through dozens of stories, William Ury presents a useful process that those who negotiate regularly can apply. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 5, “Assert Your No,” pp. 125-129:


“It’s easy to say ‘no!’ when a deeper ‘yes!’ is burning inside.”

—Stephen R. Covey


How that you have expressed your Yes, it is time to assert your No. In our journey, we have come to the very heart of the Positive No method. We are not only in the middle of the three stages but also in the middle part of the Positive No statement. All else is prelude or postlude.

The essential action in asserting your No is very simple. You are setting a clear limit, drawing a clean line, creating a firm boundary.



The Power of No


Saying No is essential to life. Every living cell has a membrane that allows certain needed nutrients to pass through and repels others. Every living organism needs such boundaries to protect itself. To survive and thrive, every human being and every orga­nization need to be able to say No to anything that threatens their safety, dignity, and integrity.

No is the key word of order, structure, and discipline. Rules and laws are often stated in the form of Nos. Of the Ten Commandments in the Bible, for instance, eight are framed as Nos. The great virtues of No are clarity and specificity. Just think of the difference between telling a child, “Please treat your classmates with respect” and saying, “No hitting!” “No” gets the point across simply and clearly, specifying with preci­sion exactly what you mean.

There comes a moment in life when each person learns the power of saying No to set a protective limit. I once saw a little boy crying in my daughter’s preschool playground. His school­mates were swinging him on a tire hanging from a tree. He wanted to get off, but he could not communicate his feelings. As I watched, his teacher intervened. She gently instructed him to “use your words.” He immediately started saying, “Stop the swing! Stop the swing!” When his schoolmates did stop, his face lit up with delight at his discovery of the power to say No.

But No has uses that go far beyond protection and discipline. When we make fun of children saying No, calling the age when they first learn to use that word the “terrible twos,” we are miss­ing the importance of the developmental work they are doing. For this is when children are becoming autonomous and learn­ing to create boundaries. They are beginning to define who they are—and who they are not. If you listen carefully behind their Nos—”No, I don’t want to eat that! No, I don’t want to wear that! No, I don’t want to go there!”—what do you hear? “I exist! I have a right to my own feelings. I have a right to my own opinions. I am me.” A new being is announcing her inde­pendent existence. Learning to say No is essential to the ongoing development of each human being.

No is the key word in defining your identity, your individu­ality, or, in organizational terms, your brand. If you cannot say No, you do not have a brand, for your brand is defined by what you say No to. No is a selection principle that allows you to be who you are and not someone or something else. No gives you the individuality and definition that make this world a richer place.

Because No is the word we use to express our power, the nor­mal tendency is to overdo our Nos, so they come across as attacking—or to underdo our Nos, so they come across as weak and hesitant. The challenge is to get it just right. How can you be assertive without being aggressive?



Let Your No Flow


The solution is to use what might be called a natural No.

A natural No is simple and straightforward. It flows naturally and almost effortlessly from your Yes. I remember hearing natu­ral Nos from my daughter Gabriela when she was small. “No” would just roll off her tongue as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “No, I don’t want to talk right now, Papi. I’m playing. Can I go now?” I would be five thousand miles away in a jungle, having tramped miles to find a phone to talk with her and having tried the line a half dozen times, but I always found myself utterly disarmed because her No was so natural. It was transparent, untamed by fear, unspoiled by anger. It was honest, clean, and matter-of-fact.

Nos get more difficult to say as we get older and our emo­tions and motivations become more complex and our sense of consequences more acute. But if you’ve followed the process this far, the action is, in one sense, already over. You’ve done the essential preparatory work. You are like an athlete who has trained hard. Now, during the race, it is time to reap the rewards of that hard work.

Let your No flow. Let it flow from the Yes you have uncov­ered. Let it flow from the power you have developed. Let it flow from the respect you have offered. In this way, your No will be clear, committed, and clean.



Let It Flow from Your Yes


Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as you say No is your Yes—the core interest, need, or value you are seeking to protect. Remember that No Is just a different way of saying Yes.

Consider how this mother stands up for her child who has special needs when a teacher wants the child to leave the class:


TEACHER:     I’m sorry, Mrs. Taylor, but Courtney can’t stay in the humanities class. She doesn’t belong there.

MOTHER (in a matter-of-fact tone): No. Courtney has a right to be included with her peers. We will have to find a way to make it work.

TEACHER:     But she’s not keeping up.

MOTHER:      Courtney has challenges, but I assure you that she will do the work.

TEACHER:     But she got upset the other day by the work.

MOTHER (quiet and firm): The reason she got upset was because she was told that she doesn’t belong in the class.


Courtney stayed in the class and did the work.

The mother’s No flowed naturally from her Yes—her desire to have her child feel included. The mother did not attack the teacher, saying things like, “You are discriminating against my daughter! You told her she didn’t belong in the class.” Instead she stayed focused on protecting Courtney’s right to be in­cluded with her peers in the classroom. The mother was not laying down the law or driving a stake in the ground, but stand­ing up strongly for her child.

As this example illustrates, a natural No is not a rigid and in­flexible position, but rather a firm stance that flows organically from your interests. Remember, you are simply using the clarity~ specificity, and power of a No to communicate a Yes to what matters.

Imagine your No not as a wall but rather as a strong living boundary that protects what is important. Whereas a wall cre­ates a visual barrier between the parties, a boundary allows the parties to see each other and stay connected—while still setting firm limits.


Ury has been involved in negotiations around the globe for decades, and he shares the lessons from that experience on the pages of The Power of a Positive No.


Steve Hopkins, April 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2007 issue of Executive Times


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