The Power (and Value) of “No”

Yes/No.  Yin/Yang. Right/Wrong.  It seems as if there are a lot of ways to say that in many decisions, we have two basic potential responses (and many other shades of gray in between).  Answering “Yes” almost always involves more work, more responsibility and more hassle.  So why don’t we choose “No” more often?

As human beings, there is research to suggest that we want to generally appease others at a very fundamental level.  This isn’t about conflict management, it’s simply about survival and the power that comes with “the return of the favor.”  It’s even got a political science term that sounds awfully legal: “social contract” – that the individual give up some flexibility of behavior in favor of the larger societal good.  But realize that there is a quid pro quo here, we expect something in return.

It’s important, however, to learn the power and value of saying “No.”

At your individual level, “No” might mean that you have more time to devote to your already-full plate of things you’ve said “yes” to. At the societal level, “No” means that you are recognizing participatory limitations – that you believe that you have already contributed (or are contributing) to the “group” (however you would like to define it at that particular moment). Without realizing it, you actually do a form of “hedonistic calculus” to determine the effect of saying No and formulate defenses in the event you’re challenged.

But it’s not wrong to say No – and there are a lot of benefits to saying “No” with compassion and clarity.

While you may be refusing someone something that they want, and as I reminded someone the other day, you’re no good to anyone (including yourself) if you’re not able to do what you have already committed to do.  Saying “No” is a defense mechanism and allows you the ability to regulate your workload.  But, it’s also a starting point (as pointed out by Jim Camp in “Start with No!”) in that only if you say “No” do you have a place to begin a conversation.

Which means that from a negotiation perspective, “No” is a wonderful way to begin when asked for any settlement.  Camp believes that it’s the ONLY starting point – and he says on his website that starting with no is to “gain control of the deal.”  Whether you believe that’s true (or even if you want control of the deal), he is right that without saying “No”, there isn’t a conversation or negotiation at all – saying “yes” is merely a statement of agreement.

Saying “No”, however, doesn’t have to be done in a mean spirited manner and doesn’t have to be used with force.  Rather, the manner in which you say “No” can convey almost any conceivable emotion and can even foster a reciprocal compassion for your need/desire to say “No.”  For example, I was asked the other day to complete some new work for an old client on a quick-turnaround basis.

I responded saying that while I wanted to complete their project, I didn’t have time to get it done on their schedule because I was going on a babymoon with my wife.  In other words, I said “No.”  But of course, I didn’t only say “No.”  My next sentence was to give them the option for me to complete the project upon my return.  When they learned that my wife and I were expecting and because they understood the desire to take a last vacation before the baby arrived, they were sympathetic to my reason for saying No – and in fact, their time schedule really wasn’t as inflexible as they first made it appear.  In the end, I will get to enjoy my babymoon, I will complete their work promptly upon my return and they’ll have their needs met as well. [By the way, the ability to say No is founded upon proper use of Information Gathering skills.]

By saying “No” I was actually able to get everyone what they wanted.  Try it yourself and let me know how it works in the comments!

The Licensing Handbook Blog is the companion site to the Software Licensing Handbook. Covering licensing topics on a regular basis, Jeffrey Gordon attempts to offer advice, add humor and sometimes even a bit of wit to a practice that most people find abhorrent – namely, reading a contract from start to finish.  Follow me on Twitter if you want up-to-the-minute information on contracting, licensing, negotiation and the law.

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