Test Driving the 'Positive No'

Last year, a colleague asked me to help lead the development of a proposal for a particular project and then lead the project if we were successful. I instinctively knew I didn't want to take this project on; I wasn't convinced it would lead to positive change, nor that it would advance Bridgespan's practice and knowledge. Still, I wanted to honor my relationship with my colleague, and consider whether this was a strategic fit. I was reluctant to say no.

Coincidentally, I happened to be reading The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes by William Ury (Bantam Books, 2007). In this sequel to Ury's 1991 classic, Getting To Yes, Ury asserts the importance of saying no clearly and effectively -- but doing so in a way that also preserves and even enhances our relationships.

I decided I would put Ury's positive no to the test with my colleague. But first I had some reading, thinking, and preparation to do.

Why Is It So Hard to Say No?
As I read "Positive No", I reflected on the challenges we face in the social sector with saying no. Consider:

  • The nonprofit leader who struggles to say no to the funder's request to apply for funds for a purpose that's a stretch from her mission or current strategy

  • The nonprofit staff member who continues to do his job the same way but doesn't want to rock the boat by saying that it's actually not what beneficiaries want or need
  • The funder who continues to fund organizations that are accomplishing very little in terms of results but have been longstanding grantees
  • The funder who is approached by another funder to collaborate on an initiative but who believes the collaboration will take more time than they have or may not yield results that make the investment worthwhile
  • We've all been there -- at work and in our personal lives. How do we say no when we know it's best? And how do we say it in a way that doesn't anger or alienate the person making the request?

    According to Ury, this tension between exercising our power and tending to our relationships leads us to accommodate (say yes when we want to say no), attack (say no poorly), or avoid the situation entirely (say nothing at all). And sometimes we do some combination of the three. Sound familiar?

    Getting Ready to Say No
    Using Ury's approach requires preparation. Before you say no, take time to:

    • Develop a plan B. If you say no, what is the alternative? Having a plan B helps give you the backbone to say no. In my case, to reject my colleague's request, plan B meant believing there were other worthy projects I would have the opportunity to lead soon. In the case of a nonprofit leader being asked to accept funding for a purpose that isn't aligned with the nonprofit's mission or strategy, plan B might mean believing there will be other ways to fund their core work.
  • Fully listen to and respect what the other person is asking. Have you fully understood the other person's point of view? Have you acknowledged the motivation behind their request? In my case, I listened well to the points in favor of pursuing the opportunity: it came to us from a donor of a former client, and the work would serve a community that desperately needed an infusion of support and new ideas.
  • Yes - No - Yes
    Having done that important preparatory thinking, I was ready to pursue Ury's three-step yes-no-yes approach to delivering a positive no.

    Step 1. The first yes: express and protect your interests
    To develop the first yes, reflect on what really matters to you and the emotions behind your no. Why do you want to say no? Ury offers these questions to get you started:

    • What am I seeking to create by saying no? What other activity or person do I want to say yes to?

  • What am I seeking to protect by saying no? What's at risk?
  • What am I seeking to change by saying no -- either in the other's behavior or in the situation?
  • Rather than focusing on your position, you are now reflecting on your needs, interests, and values. You then use this internal inquiry to understand your own motivations and, if you still want to say no, to prepare a clear statement of what matters. This is your first yes.

    In my case, the first yes was this: I felt that more exciting projects were on the horizon, and it was worth the wait to achieve higher impact. We also find that working with the right leader/organization is essential to impact; in this case, the critical entity that would lead this effort lacked the deep community relationships and buy-in necessary for success.

    In the case of a nonprofit leader who doesn't want to accept funding that doesn't meet the organization's mission or strategy, the leader's first yes might be: "I want to position us to devote our staff time to what's most strategic for us and our beneficiaries." Or, "I would like to avoid having to fundraise to keep this new effort alive after this initial money runs out."

    Keep in mind, the first yes can be made all the more powerful by noting your shared beliefs. For example, to support my case, I referred back to our shared goal to work with organizations and initiatives that lead to impact.

    Step 2. The no: establish your limits
    After your first yes, your no should flow naturally. You likely can express your no without using the word no. In my case, I said: "I just haven't heard or seen compelling evidence that suggests this opportunity is worth the investment of our time. And here is what I know so far..."

    The nonprofit leader might say: "Because I value our relationship, I want to make sure we could give this project the kind of high priority it deserves. Given our strategy and where we are going, I don't have the confidence this will be possible."

    In some cases, your no may be based on intuition or discomfort. You might say: "I just don't feel comfortable moving in this direction." Or, "I'm not ready to make this kind of commitment." It helps to be factual about what's behind your no.

    Step 3. The second yes: make a proposal and save the relationship
    Finally, delivering the second yes is the real trick to maintaining and even improving the relationship. In this final yes, you are proposing a way to get to a positive outcome. This might mean offering another option based on the person's motivation or needs. It might also mean negotiating aspects of the original proposal -- for example, timing.

    In my case, I said: "Let's proceed with another meeting to make sure we fully understand the opportunity and can then make a well-informed decision. We may learn information that gives us confidence that it's worth investing 4-5 months of our time working on this."

    In the nonprofit leader's case, the second yes might be: "I understand what you're trying to do. Here are some organizations that would find this strategic." The leader might add: "Although this does not fit our strategy, I can see ways we might collaborate with the organization that takes this on."

    Test Drive Results of the Positive No: I'm Buying
    So what happened with my yes-no-yes? My positive no caused my colleague to reflect more deeply on the opportunity and to treat it with greater skepticism; this led to both of us concluding it was a poor fit. I successfully brought in two exciting projects in short order and my dance card was full. Better yet, my relationship with my colleague is even stronger today.

    Let's be honest: as nonprofit leaders, the people and organizations we serve deserve a full body yes to what we pursue rather than a half-hearted yes. Taking the risk to say no -- and delivering that no with resolve and compassion and a path to a full body yes down the road -- can actually increase others' respect for us and strengthen our organizations and relationships.