How to say no

Kathryn Crawford Saxer A Little Kindness, Career Management

As I wrote last week, I’ve started fostering puppies. A potential new owner of one of my foster puppies recently asked me whether I could keep the puppy for an additional two weeks while she went to a wedding.

“No! I’m not your dog sitter!” I yelled. On the inside.

Saying no can be tough for us conflict-averse folks, both at work and in the rest of our lives. Fortunately, there’s a blueprint for delivering a gracious, relationship-building “No!”

Dr. William Ury’s 2007 guide, “The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal, Save the Relationship and Still Say No,” offers an alternative to the familiar and dysfunctional strategies of either 1. accommodating an unreasonable request; 2. attacking the other person; or 3. avoiding the confrontation altogether — what he calls the “Three-A Trap.”

This straightforward puppy conflict was a perfect opportunity to practice Ury’s “positive no.” It’s the kind of ridiculous situation that can tie me up in knots, and if you’re conflict averse, too, you probably know exactly what I mean.

An ordinary no begins and ends with “no,” but a positive no sandwiches the no between two yeses, according to Ury, who is director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University.

The positive no is all about framing. Here’s how, using my own puppy problem.

Step 1: The affirmation (Yes!)

“Why do you want to say no?” Ury asks. “What are your underlying interests, needs and values? Once you have answered this question, you can then crystallize your Yes! — your intention to protect what matters most to you.”

Step 1 is the place to find common ground: What can you and the person you are in conflict with agree on? Where are you both aligned?

I want these puppies to find good homes with owners who are ready and prepared to take them. My Yes! to this prospective puppy owner sounds like: “We so want you to have the puppy that is right for you when you’re ready to take him.” (There. I’ve leapt into the middle of the conflict!)

Step 2: Establish a limit (No)

“Because no is the word we use to express our power, the normal tendency is to overdo our noes, so they come across as attacking — or to underdo our noes, so they come across as weak and hesitant,” Ury writes. “How can you be assertive without being aggressive?”

It’s a lot easier to say no when it’s grounded in your values, on what you care about — when you are clear on what you are protecting — rather than when it’s about your irritation with the other person.

My No to this prospective puppy owner sounds like: “I won’t look after the puppy for two more weeks because I need to make room in my home for new foster puppies.” (Look, Ma, no hands! I said no, and I didn’t attack her for her outrageous request.)

Step 3: End with a proposal (Yes?)

“If the first yes is an affirmation of your core interests, this second yes is an invitation to a positive outcome,” Ury writes. “As you close one door with your no, you open another with your second yes, as if to say, ‘Will you come through the door with me?’”

This final step makes things a lot easier for us conflict-averse people. It’s a way to sweeten the no, to find a path forward, to stay in the relationship — without compromising our values and the things we care about.

My Yes? to this prospective puppy owner sounds like: “Why don’t I call you when I have a puppy ready for adoption later this summer, so you can be present and focused on your puppy when he arrives?”

The prospective puppy owner and I ended the call in warm agreement, with the door wide open for a future adoption.

What conflict?

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.