When “no” is the right answer



As a person who likes to help people, it has been interesting to find saying “no” sometimes gets a better outcome. But for whom?

Actually it’s for me!

I am a “yes” person most of the time. I say yes to to take on work projects, to go to business social events and help out family members/friends. But recent experiences have led me to recognising that sometimes “no” really gives more opportunity and better quality outcomes.

“Can do” versus can’t
Work is one place it is good to have a “can do” attitude, a flexible approach to getting things done or fitting them in. It seems especially important to have a “yes” attitude in a consulting business, especially in the starting phase. You are not too keen to turn down opportunities for work – be they actual engagements or proposals.

So with this in mind, I recently had to inform a client that I was going to be unable to work on a project for them if it was scheduled in a particular timeframe. After a lengthy period of proposal writing and rewriting followed by lengthy internal consultation (and no confirmation of the work), my availability to do the project changed. I had been offered and accepted another definite engagement. Thinking I had closed the door on the consulting project, I wrote to inform them about this and the dates involved. There was my “no”.

No turned into yes
To my surprise the response was that they wanted to discuss it with me. I had a small window of opportunity to do the work, and was engaged to do just that – in a matter of days. Given the lead time, I was gob-smacked at the speed of the turnaround.

Why is it so?

Was it that a period of unavailability introduced a perception of scarcity of resources?

After all the to-ing and fro-ing with proposals, was this what was needed to get more action?


I was not the only person who had invested time in this project. I recognise the internal machinations of workplaces are not always as fast as the external consultant would like, but part of life in this kind of work. But looking back, I probably gave a “positive” no.

A positive no?
Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? No – there is actually a lot of thought that goes into positive nos. How your no is framed, and what you are actually saying no to, is important.  In fact, it boils down to a negotiation technique. Limiting the time frame of availability, marrying that with the work already done and being the preferred provider that they did not want to lose, were playing together nicely here. Sounds like manipulation?

In fact, I have only thought of these factors after the event when reflecting on how things turned out. I was surprised. I thought I had potentially done a lot of “lost work”.  I had enjoyed developing the proposal and finding a solution to meet the client’s needs. So in my view, I had learnt a lot, that I would not lose.

Is there power in “no”?
I think there is. I also think it depends on your perspective.

I was saying (and thinking), “Thank you for the opportunity to provide a proposal for this work. I have enjoyed doing it but have been offered another opportunity I have chosen to take up”.

I felt confident in saying this, as there had been a period of silence about the progress of the project. I was providing information that indicated that other people wanted my services (and they didn’t). I also need to eat!

What do they call an alternative to walking away from the negotiating table? BATNA – Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It’s knowing when you have put your offering on the table, and it is not taken up so walking away is your best alternative. I learnt about this years ago when I read the Fisher and Ury book, Getting to Yes. The thing was I did not recognise it at the time. This all came flooding back when I sat and thought about what happened.

I also recall a publication by Ury called The Power of a Positive No. A colleague of mine had a copy and referred to it often when we worked on training programs for managing difficult situations. I think it must be about time I read it as I think I am already a convert!

What about you?

Has “no” worked for you?

Have you honed your skills in using positive nos?

I’d love to know!

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