How to Create Value With a Positive No

By Chuck Doran and Elena Meth

No – it’s probably one of the first words you learned to say, but it’s also one we’re often encouraged to avoid. Saying no can be perceived as being disagreeable or un-moving. As a result, we can end up overextending ourselves or agreeing to a solution that doesn’t meet our interests for the sake of amicability. However, learning to deliver a positive no in an interest-based, intentional way is an essential skill for any successful negotiator.

In a previous blog post, we discussed how to find value when the other party in a negotiation says no to you. Drawing from William Ury’s book The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal, Save the Relationship – And Still Say No, we want to focus on how you can say no in a way that maintains relationships and helps create more value in negotiations. Ury stresses that there is no right way for everyone, nor is it always an easy process, to say no in a productive manner. However, following the steps below, you can find hidden value in crafting a more positive no in your negotiations.


Ury explains that a common mistake people make when delivering a no is jumping directly into saying no. Beginning immediately with a no can sound adversarial and frames our thinking against the other party. By preparing – preferably before the negotiation begins – you can craft a no that is based in your interests. Prepare by listing all of your interests as well as the other party’s interests. This will set you up to create an interest-based statement focused on value creation and relationship building.

Next, brainstorm additional options that can serve as a “Plan B” to the idea that you are rejecting. For instance, let’s say you are buying a car. Beyond wanting something for a good price, you also care about reliability and efficiency (gas mileage). Keeping all of your interests in mind and not focusing on a bottom-line price, not only helps you work towards a deal that fits all your needs – it can also help empower your no. Identify what doesn’t work about the offer rather than just walking away will help improve the relationship and increase the likelihood of keeping the conversation going.


This stage of the process is the crux in delivering a positive no, according to Ury. It can be boiled down to a three-word phrase: Yes! No. Yes? You start by expressing what works, then stating what doesn’t work and firmly saying no. Then, you propose an option you could say yes to. In the car-buying example, this structure may look as follows:

“I appreciate the high gas mileage and reliability of this car. [YES!] Unfortunately, the price is simply too high for my financial needs. [NO.] Do you have anything with similar gas mileage and reliability that fits within my budget? [YES?]

The car buyer framed his statement with a Yes! by expressing his interests, then moved on to a respectful but firm No. After his No, the buyer put a different option on the table, giving the dealer the opportunity to possibly say Yes? This sequence helps maintain relationships and work towards continued collaboration and value creation.

Follow through

Even if you are careful not to offend with your no, some people may not react well. If you are met with anger, personal attacks, or guilt trips, it may be difficult to stay firm in your no. In situations like these, Ury recommends “going to the balcony” – taking a mental pause to assess the situation and be intentional about how you respond.

Another way to approach a negative reaction to your no is to “name the game.” If you hear personal attack such as, “So you’re too cheap to invest in a good car?,” try taking time to think through the message behind the other party’s words to help you to stand firm in your no.

Ury offers a story of how he and his wife had to say no and stick to it when dealing with doctors and other medical professionals who were working on his young daughter’s long term case. Ury realized that to ensure his daughter’s well-being, he had to say no to certain hospital policies such as medical interns invading his daughter’s space at inappropriate times or to procedures that were medically unnecessary. In Ury’s experience, the doctors did not intend to put his daughter at risk or treat his family without dignity, and the act of saying no went a long way in improving the quality of her treatment.

The core text on negotiation may be titled Getting to Yes, but agreement is not always the best way to move forward. Sometimes, even when we deliver a well-crafted no, it is better to walk away to an alternative to meet your needs (see our post on how to walk away from a negotiation for advice on how to do this). Even if you choose to walk away without agreement, delivering a thoughtful, positive no helps maintain the relationship with the other side and paves the way for future negotiations.

We would love to hear about your experiences delivering a positive no in the comments below. Happy negotiating!

If you enjoyed this article, consider checking out MWI’s blog post suggesting books to build on your negotiation skills. Want to build upon the negotiation skills you’ve read about? Contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org to learn more about how MWI can help you become a better negotiator.

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