You’ve been working with a group of stakeholders to forge consensus on a project issue. Some want exactly what others don’t want, some refuse to reveal their private agendas, and some seem to change their goals almost at random. At times, you’ve felt that the group was close to agreement, only to be disrupted when someone on high changed the external constraints.
It’s been a little frustrating.
Work life sometimes delivers disappointments, often in the form of No. Some of us have difficulty hearing No or dealing with it once we do hear it. And, sometimes, No arrives so frequently that we exhaust our ability to cope with it.
In the tips that follow, I’ll use the term No-giver to refer to the person or people who said No and recipient to refer to the person or people receiving the No.
To understand the full range of choices recipients have, it’s useful to analyze the situation from three perspectives: within, between, and among.
Within describes the recipient’s internal response. Some of us conceal our internal responses from others and even from ourselves.
Between pertains to relationships. There are tight connections between the method of delivery, how it’s received, and past experiences shared by the No-giver and recipient.
Among includes connections in the larger context—the organization, its people, and their perceptions. When we consider stakeholders as a whole, we’re usually considering the larger context.
Suppose that you’re presenting to a general manager’s staff a plan proposed by IT. The plan doesn’t provide everything the general manager wanted by the desired dates, but it does deliver everything eventually. IT has explained why this is necessary, and it’s your task to present their case as a starting point for further negotiation. After you’ve clarified general management’s objections, you go back to IT to help them understand why adjustments to their proposal are needed. At times, you feel a lot like a high-level diplomat shuttling back and forth between the leaders of two warring countries who speak entirely different languages.
Within: The Self
No can arrive with a thud: “No can do” or “When pigs fly.” Or, it can land gently: “Not at this time” or “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.”
No can rock our world, or it can be a useful prod to make alternative plans. How we respond can make the difference between success and decades of pointless wandering.
Here are four techniques for enhancing your inner response to No.
Remove time pressure: While formulating a response, time pressure limits clear thinking. Even if an immediate Yes is needed, taking time to think does little harm. We usually do much better if we know in advance how much time we can spare before we must act.
If we enter the conversation knowing that we do have a little time to think, we’re more likely to respond creatively to No. (See Example 1)
Question your own analysis of the consequences: Failing to consider the consequences of No carefully enough makes receiving No difficult, and we’re more likely to respond to No emotionally or to reject it. Usually, that leads to trouble.
The pathway opened by No can sometimes be more desirable than the pathway opened by Yes. Examine it courageously. (Example 2)
Distinguish your request from your Self: Sometimes we experience No as the answer to the question “Am I a good person?” Rarely is this the issue. Usually, No is related more directly to what was requested.
Distinguishing your request from your Self provides protection from imagined attacks or criticism and helps you recognize them when they’re real. (Example 3)
Be prepared for No: When No comes as a total shock, hearing it is truly challenging. To avoid the shock, prepare by asking four simple questions: What if the answer is No? How long will it take us to find another approach? Is another approach actually impossible, or is the search for it simply distasteful? Is the organization harmed by No, or is it mostly my personal problem?
Answering such questions in advance helps you control emotional responses. (Example 4)
Relationships matter. If the recipient has long been a target of abuse by the No-giver, fear might be a likely response. If the No-giver and recipient have a history of constructive collaboration, honest discussion is likely to ensue. Here are five practices that help build or maintain constructive relationships with No-givers.
Seek to understand why: Our first response to No might be emotional: hurt, consternation, or anger. To recover a more serene state and move toward alternatives, seek to understand the No-giver’s view. Even though the No-giver might be unable or unwilling to be candid, our response to No is more effective if we understand the reasons for the No. (Example 5)
Take the broad view: To understand what led to No, apply the Johari Window.  The Open factors alone might not explain it, because some factors might be Hidden from the recipient, the No-giver might be Blind to other factors, or critical information might be Unknown to both. The Blind and Unknown quadrants of the window are most likely to produce convergence.
In responding, avoid the fundamental attribution error. Don’t attribute the No to the No-giver’s character defects without solid evidence. (Example 6)
Never threaten: One popular, threatening response to a subordinate’s No is “If you can’t do it, we’ll find someone who can.” A threatening response to a superior’s No is “Just remember I warned you.” Threats rarely produce conversions. At most, they produce compliance, and they almost always damage relationships.
Anger, fear, and feelings of powerlessness can lead to threats. When you feel the urge, clear thinking may be difficult. Recover control or suspend the conversation. (Example 7)
Prevent, rather than respond: Hearing No when it arrives is useful, but preventing it is even better. Here are four effective strategies:
By working toward Yes in advance, you’ll learn more about why Yes might be appealing to the decider, and that can help you craft your request. (Example 8)
Ask whether the No-giver is empowered to say Yes: If we know the No-giver lacks the authority to say Yes, we can prepare our response to the No. If the No-giver has no choice, investing in prevention might be pointless. In determining whether No-givers have real choices, remember that their constraints might include factors external to the organization. (Example 9)
Among: The Larger Context
The larger context includes everything beyond yourself and your relationships: laws, regulations, procedures, and organizational politics.
Know whether there is an appeal path: Knowing that recourse is possible can help you remain centered when No arrives. Familiarity with the appeal path can help you frame the original request.
No-givers dislike being overruled. Construct your request so as to enhance the likelihood of a successful appeal. (Example 10)
Know whose No it is: Sometimes the No is directed at denying something to someone else or to another effort. In such cases, responses that leave the true target untouched may be ineffective. Seek alliance with the true target, or adjust your request to minimize entanglement with the target. (Example 11)
Understand reality: Sometimes the No is determined by the laws of nature, legal requirements, or financial constraints. Financial constraints are the least objective, but there are limits even there. A realistic perspective can help you toavoid asking for the impossible and to accept No when Yes is impossible. (Example 12)
Does No really break my world?: No might be the end of any plans that assumed Yes, but it usually isn’t the end of the world as we know it. To examine the No version of the world objectively, ask, “If I could still accomplish something I wanted, how would I do it now?” The essential question is “How can you re-point yourself toward something else you want?” (Example 13)
Because reflection can facilitate learning, conduct a No retrospective after any especially difficult—or especially successful—incident. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t—within, between, and among—when you received a No. If you hesitate to reflect on this because such reflection might be a bit painful, that’s just your Self telling you No. But, you know how to deal with that, right?