How to Say No While Strengthening Relationships


In this podcast/blog you’ll learn:

1. why saying no can be so hard,

2. why Warren Buffett believes in the power of no, and

3. how to say no in a way that strengthens your relationship.

Why Is Saying No So Hard?

Have you ever had that experience where you find yourself doing something that you didn’t want to do? Example: taking on a job you really didn’t want to do. You’re just sitting there upset asking yourself “dang, how did I end up here?” We’ve all been there. It’s an awful feeling. This unease we feel is called cognitive dissonance. It occurs when we find that our actions and beliefs don’t match up.

In negotiation we focus so much on getting to yes that we forget that there are times when no is the right answer for you. Why is no so hard to say? It’s only two letters! Think about this, when we first learn to speak, what is our favorite word? No. “are you ready for bedtime?” “no.” “Please eat your veggies.” “No.” We knew what we wanted and we knew what we didn’t want and we were able to clearly articulate our desires. So what changed?

The inability to say no stems from the same thinking that prevents us from asking for what we really want: we’re afraid of offending people. This belief is rooted in our beliefs of other people’s perceptions about us. In other words we are scared of what we think they think.

The 3 Wrong Ways to Say No

You know that uneasy feeling you get when you need to say no to someone? That stems from your mind being torn between exercising the authority to do what is best for you and saying whatever it takes to maintain the relationship with the other side. We think of it as us vs. them- I have a choice between doing what’s right for you and what’s right for me. That’s an awful place to be. This mindset results in you choosing one of 3 equally bad strategies

1. The doormat technique: this is where we say yes even when we want to say no. You do this to create the façade of peace. What typically ends up happening is you say yes to something you don’t want to do, then you do that thing poorly and with a bad attitude, and the person you accommodated with the weak yes is upset with you because you did a bad job. Then they end up questioning your relationship. They think, “I know can do better than this. Is it me? Does s/he not respect me? Is this sabotage?”

2. The ugly no: here, no is the right answer but it is delivered indelicately. You say no in a way that hurts the relationship. Your friend asks: Would you like to volunteer on Saturday in the park? We’re planting trees and we’d like you and your company to

participate. You respond by saying: No thanks. In their mind they’re thinking: “No? Just no? I’m here trying to create more oxygen for selfish people like you and all you say is no?!?” This is an example of what I call a naked no. You need to dress that no up a little bit and make it look presentable. You can’t just leave you no out there exposed to the elements. A naked no is vulnerable to attack and misinterpretation.

3. The running-person technique: in the spirit of the current internet craze- the running man challenge, we’ll name this one the running man technique. I only say running man because that’s the name of the dance, if I named it, I would have been more inclusive and called it the running person. This is where you are asked a question and you respond by running away to avoid having to say no. We run from the question and hide behind words and phrases like “maybe”, “let me get back to you on that” “let me ask ______”. We don’t say yes, we don’t say no, we say nothing.

How Should We Say No?

My friends, I’m here to tell you that there is a solution to this problem. Here’s the key: your best no is rooted in a yes.

Think about it. Why do we say no? It’s not only because we don’t want something, it’s also because we have another option that we want more and we are saying yes to that better option by saying no to the less desirable option.

Let’s use the previous example where your friend asked you and your employees to go plant trees. What was the yes behind your no? You may have been saying yes to your family or yes to your time to rest and recuperate from a busy week.

Every yes, is protected by an infinite number of nos. At any given time we can only take advantage of a limited amount of opportunities. If spending time with your family on Saturday is what you want to do with your time, there are millions of other activities that may be vying for your time that you need to reject in order to spend time with your family.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when you say no is focusing on the negative and not the positive. This makes delivering the no a lot more difficult.

So how do we say no without jeopardizing the relationship? We use a no sandwich! You may be thinking to yourself: Kwame, didn’t you teach us how to make a warning sandwich in a previous episode? Yes, yes I did. Do you know why? Sandwiches are delicious and easy to consume. This holds true in food form and word form.

Various sandwich techniques utilize what’s known in psychology as the primacy and recency effect. If you are asked to remember a list of words you are most likely to remember the words at the very beginning and the very end. Primacy refers to your ability to remember the first few words and recency refers to your ability to remember the last few words.

So what are the ingredients to a no sandwich?

1. You start with yes: What is it that you want to say yes to?

2. Then say no to whatever is threatening the aforementioned yes.

3. Then end with yes to the continued relationship to the person you’re talking to. If this is a negotiation, you finish this off with a yes to continuing the discussion. You can also provide another option for the person to get what they want- this would be your counter offer.

Essentially you are saying yes to the person and no to their substantive request. It’s critically important for you to do two things when using this technique: stick to incontrovertible facts and avoid the word “you” and focus on using the word “I” when using this technique. This is all about eliminating room for argument. The same thing happens when you stick to agreed upon facts: there’s nothing more to discuss. You simply need to address the facts without adding any kind of value judgment to it. Similarly, there is little room for discussion if you focus on your opinions, perceptions, and needs. You can’t negotiate personal preference.

When it comes to delivering your no it needs to be clear, unapologetic and concise. State your no in a matter-of-fact tone. It is simply another fact that you are presenting.

What does this look like in real life? So in addition to this negotiation-consulting firm, I still am a lawyer and have small business clients. Sometimes people would ask me to do legal work that I could do but I’m just not interested in doing. For example: let’s say a client comes to me in tears and says- I’m getting a divorce, can you represent me? In my mind I’m screaming no way! I don’t want to be the kind of lawyer that has tissues strategically placed around my office. But I don’t want to hurt my client. I know he needs me right now and I want to be there for him. My no sandwich would look like this:

1. I’m really sorry to hear about that situation, Mr. Client. I’ve really enjoyed working with you and helping you with your business law needs. I’m passionate about entrepreneurship and that’s where I want to keep the focus of my practice.

2. Because of that, unfortunately, I can’t help you with this problem.

3. However, I want to be clear that I want to keep working with you on your business law matters. I’ll put you in touch with one of my friend that does family law. You’ll be in good hands. Let me know in what other ways I can support you as you go through this.

So what effect does this have? Here are the benefits to me- I don’t get stuck doing work that I despise and I still maintain a strong relationship with my client. In fact, the relationship may be stronger because I was still able to create value for him. What are the benefits to him? He clearly knows where I stand and he will be put in contact with someone who can help him. Let’s not underestimate the value of clarity for the other side.

Think about times when you were on the other side of the running person technique. You are left sitting there thinking: why didn’t you just spare me the drama and say no upfront? Now you wasted my time. The no sandwich allows them to have a clearer understanding of the situation. If you are wishy-washy, they may continue to pursue a yes because they don’t understand what you’re saying is a no. You’re doing them a favor. They need you to be clear so they can stop wasting their time.

Wisdom from Warren

Warren Buffett believes that the ability to say no was one of the most powerful tools in his business toolbox.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

~ Warren Buffett

This allows him to focus on things that are more important to him without distractions. In other words, saying no makes your yeses more powerful.

The Power Behind Your No

The strength of you no depends on the strength of your first yes. Your first yes is essentially a way for you to assert your values. It answers the question- what is most important to you in this situation. I emphasize the word most there because sometimes the reason no is hard to say is because you need to choose between two good options.

Let’s go back to that planting trees example. If the reason you said no was because you wanted to watch Saturday morning cartoons and eat cereal, your no is going to be pretty weak. So before you give a no, take some time and figure out a powerful reason for you saying no, a reason so strong that people can’t question your no.

So if I’m asked to do things on Saturday mornings, here’s a legit no that I use:

  • My son is 8 months old and my wife is going through residency. We don’t have much time to spend together as a family during the week so I like to spend my Saturdays with them.
  • Because of that, I can’t come out this Saturday.
  • Keep me in the loop in the future though, maybe my schedule will free up and I could come help out later in the year.

I’m not going to act like saying no is easy, because it’s not. I have a history of people pleasing so I know first hand how tough it could be. If no is tough for you, ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen? This will help you to distinguish irrational fear from reality.

But Kwame, what if I don’t have a good reason for no? What if I’m that person that just wants to watch cartoons and eat cereal? That’s fine. You can have your cereal and eat it too. If you can’t find a stronger reason than “I don’t want to” then roll with that. Feeling uncomfortable or not feeling up to it is a completely legitimate reason not to do something. Whatever the reason, I implore you to just be honest about it. If you try to invent solutions, your reasoning loses force and people can sense that you are This is something you’ll hear me say time and time again: honesty is persuasive. If you want to stay home and eat cereal and you try to make up a lie that sounds more legit, now you’re in a dangerous situation. You’ve just put your credibility on the line for cereal.

Listen, I’m not trying to be preachy here but you always need to be honest. Even if you’re an evil person, it is strategically better to be honest? Why? There’s less risk! If you’re caught in a lie you risk losing credibility and damage to your reputation. Both of these would result in an inability to persuade in the future because people don’t trust you.

What if They Respond Poorly (aka freak out)?

This is going to be a key point when it comes to any difficult conversation you have: you are not responsible for their reaction, you are only responsible for delivering a truthful message in a respectful manner. Try not to focus too much on people’s reaction to your no. You cannot manage their own emotions. Nos become much more complex than they need to be when we worry too much about the other person’s potential negative response.

How to Make the No Easier If They Counter

Anyone who has read legal writing will know that it can be very boring. One thing that makes it boring is the fact that we repeat ourselves. We find the phrase that pays and use it over and over again. We do this because, although it sounds boring, it’s incredibly effective. So when you’re saying no, a good way to prep for the conversation is finding the most powerful yes behind your no and turning it into a sentence. This will help you handle counters to your original no. People have this fear of repeating themselves. Even if they can come up with new reasons for you to say yes, it doesn’t mean that you need to find new reasons to say no. If people ask you the same question in different ways, feel free to give them the same response. They are literally asking for it (I hate when I say the word literally but in this case it’s appropriate).

Final Thoughts:

The opportunities and offers that you reject are going to have a larger impact on your success than those you accept. In business, time, attention, and relationships are three of the most valuable resources you have. You can protect all three of them by saying no the right way.

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Kwame Christian, Esq., M.A. Negotiation Consultant and Negotiation/Persuasion Coach

Keep listening to the podcast to learn the keys to confident communication, “compassionate curiosity”, conflict resolution, conflict management, negotiation, influence, and persuasion.

American Negotiation Institute

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