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Seven Ways To Say No

At times, life (or other people) can present us with hard choices and we may have to say no to someone. If what is being offered is worse than our Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA- our plan B essentially), then we should say no and go with our plan B. If a proposal or request to us runs afoul of applicable policies or legislation, we may have to say no. The challenge with saying no, is that refusing someone will inevitably lead to consequences, many of them potentially negative.

We may lose opportunities. Sometimes our “No” need not be the end of a negotiation. In some cases, our “No” may bring the other party back to the table with a sweetened offer on their side, if we haven’t burned the bridge to them. A “No” may alert them to the fact that we have hit our walk away point, and that further flexibility on their part is required to keep us at the table. With some people, nothing other than a “No” will truly convey that message.

In other cases, a “No” may end the negotiation on the issue, but we may not want to end or damage the relationship with the other party or their allies. We may want or need to deal with them productively in the future (e.g. in a workplace context or an ongoing buyer-supplier context).

The question in such cases may not be how we get to “Yes”, but how do we say No productively, with minimal damage. Before arriving at this point, of course, we should exhaust the use of tools like interests, options, legitimacy etc. trying to craft a ‘yesable’ proposal. Don’t start with no when you have other choices. And remember there are many ways to say no:

1. Remove blame from them. Let them leave with pride/identity intact, aware that they have not damaged relationship with you. It helps keep future doors open.

“It’s nothing that you did…”

“I recognize that you’ve done everything you could to make this work, and I appreciate it…”

“I appreciate all the efforts you’ve put in to this…”

2. Remove blame from you. Protect your relationship with them by letting them know that it was not your personal decision to say no. If using this method, be prepared for the logical response which is for them to want to deal with the real decision makers. If they can get around you and they find out that it was your decision, not so good for trust, so only use this method if you’ll be backed up.

“Unfortunately, my hands are tied by…”

“I understand your points, unfortunately, the policies I work under…”

“If it were solely up to me…”

3. Identify impact of Yes.Help them understand why you are saying no by pointing out the logical consequences of agreement. If they can see the negative impact of Yes, they may alter their proposal to make it better, or they will at least understand (and not take it personally) when you say No. Framing a “No” as an “I can’t say yes” is subtly more positive.

“The consequences of going down that road are…”

“If I say ‘yes’, it means…”

“I just can’t say yes, yet, because…”

4. Separate relationship goals from issues. By stating your positive view of the relationship and distinguishing that relationship from the substantive issues, you make it more likely the relationship can be preserved even after negotiations terminate. Even further, in some cases, you can affirm loyalty to the person, while maintaining a negative answer on the issue. Use “and” instead of “but” wherever possible. Don’t flatter. Be sincere.

“I really hate to disappoint you, and I also have to consider…”

“I value you our relationship, and don’t want that to suffer just because we may disagree on this one point.”

“Even though it appears a deal isn’t possible, based on the circumstances, I want you to know that I’ve enjoyed working with you on the problem”

5. Provide reasons. People object most to arbitrary answers. Rejection often lands as a personal slight against the other party. The more they understand the basis for your position, the less likely it will be taken as a personal slight. Using objective criteria to justify your answer may also prompt them to either respond with their own objective criteria (promoting further rational discussion) or to alter their own position (sweetening their proposal).

“I’ve reviewed the following information…[insert objective criteria] and based on that information, it doesn’t make sense to agree right now.”

“It’s very hard for me to say yes, when I look at…[list comparables]”

Listen interactively to their response

6. Show flexibility and identify unsatisfied interests. People who say “No” often mean “No, unless…” and have flexibility that may not yet have been revealed. If your “No” is rigid and unqualified, the other party may see no reason to continue exploring options with you. If you can demonstrate flexibility and also highlight the interests that need to be satisfied, the other party may sweeten their offer. Even if they walk away now, they may come back to the table later, after thinking about their BATNA, knowing that you are open to a better offer.

“I can’t say yes as things currently stand, but if you could help me by…”

“We’re close to a workable answer, but before I can say yes, I need…”

7. Show understanding of their views. If they feel that you understand their views, you will minimize relationship damage. You can agree with many of their perspectives, facts etc., without necessarily agreeing on a particular conclusion or approach. As noted above, sharing your understanding can also help.

“I understand why you want this, and…”

“If I hear you correctly, you’re saying…. My challenge is that I also have to consider… In the end, I can’t say yes.”

Finally, just because you are not in a position to say “Yes” as things currently stand, does not mean that your answer in that moment needs to be “No”. As long as you genuinely have an open mind, a much more positive response is to say. “Let me think about that for a while longer…” Don’t show them a wall unless you need to; the word “No” sounds like a wall. If you take this route, do consider the question, and do get back to them before too long.

Sometimes we have to say no, but we can do so in a variety of ways to minimize the negative impact for us and for the recipients.


Paul Godin, ADR Chambers, paul@adr.ca

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