Do I have to say ‘NO’?

When invited to outline their key challenges in ‘Difficult Conversations’ / ‘Managing Conflict’ courses, being able to say ‘no’ effectively to a request or a demand is high on most participants wish lists.

Delving a little deeper, concerns that emerge around turning someone down or setting a boundary on an aspect of their behaviour or actions include concerns about

  • the relationship being damaged
  • the other person getting angry and the situation becoming confrontational
  • they not accepting the ‘No’ and trying to challenge our power or authority
  • having to ‘waste’ time explaining over and over again that the answer is ‘no’
  • guilt about not granting the request

A ‘Positive No’

William Ury identifies the core challenge of saying ‘no’ is that it seems to force us to have to make a decision between exercising power and maintaining the relationship. We get caught in an either/or dilemma when what we should be aiming for instead is how we can hold our boundary AND maintain the relationship. Ury advocates we strive towards what he terms ‘a positive No’.

A first rule of thumb is to ensure you are respectful. This doesn’t just mean saying ‘No’ in a calm and sensitive tone. A respectful ‘no’ means taking the time to engage with the other person, listening to their concerns, acknowledging their needs and valuing them and their needs even though on this occasion you may not be able to satisfy the substantive request they are making.
Harvard Negotiation experts Fisher and Shapiro (2005) identify what they term core baseline needs common to most people. Addressing these core concerns (appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status, and role) leads to more successful negotiation as well as minimising the level of conflict generated. Interestingly many of these can be easily addressed at little or no tangible cost. They do however require a shift in mindset – from seeing this person and their demands as something to be swatted away like a buzzing fly to having positive regard for them at a basic human level.

For example, regardless of what level of difference might lie between us and another person, all of us are capable of ‘appreciation’ – simply acknowledging to the other person that we listen to and appreciate the merits and difficulties of how they think and feel and that we endeavour to put our key message across to them in a way that they will understand.

Think laterally about their needs and interests

Consider taking a broader view of what people might need and your ability to fulfil some of these needs. At a superficial level it might seem like you cannot grant their request. The substantive and overt issue might seem incompatible with what you can provide.
A classic example is where someone has to be turned down for a job they’ve applied for. It would seem time-wasting to engage in anything other than a ‘dear John’ letter or email to break the bad news. However, if we take a more considered approach at what that person’s needs might be in that situation, we see that they have other needs that we might be able to satisfy. For example they might have a need for acknowledgement and recognition of what they did do well. They might need to hear specifically what they can improve on the next time and perhaps most importantly, they probably will benefit from some reassurance and encouragement to keep on trying.
So while you didn’t meet their apparent need to get the job, you did meet other important and less obvious needs they had. While we are communicating a negative message at one level, we are at another level trying to communicate that we have positive intentions towards the other person. It’s not that we are trying to soften the reality of the ‘No’ but what we are saying is ‘I cannot grant your request, yet I understand and respect it and wish you as a person no ill will’

Avoid a confrontational push-back

A common trap we fall into is that in striving to be what we believe to be assertive and strong in holding a particular line, we deliver our message in an overly forceful manner. Anticipating resistance, we mistakenly think a vigorous tone will deter them from pushing back against us. In reality what this often does is to provoke the person and invite further argument. What can also contribute to an unhelpful tone is that we ourselves aren’t in a completely calm and unruffled state of mind. We might be feeling frustrated about the substantive issues, we might be feeling nervous about their possible reactions. Or we might be feeling guilty about what we have to communicate. All of these will impact on our own emotional state and that in turn makes us more vulnerable to communicating in a less than optimal way. This calls for us therefore to spend time in advance not only considering what needs to be said but more importantly, taking whatever steps we need to take to develop a calm and centred state of mind or at least, to effectively manage our anxiety or irritation.

Does it have to be an absolute ‘No’ ?

It’s always worth considering whether our ‘No’ needs to be so absolute. What is our motive for the refusal of what’s being requested? Are our emotions driving it rather than our thinking, e.g. fear of setting precedents, fear of losing control or just lack of time to think things through properly? For example, let’s suppose someone is asking for time off during a very busy period. They knock on your door and before they have uttered half a sentence our instinctive response is to refuse. However, you take the time and hear them out and realise that their request for time off is to attend to a family matter which while not life threatening, is of significance to this person. Equally, you present to them your concerns about this and the possible impact on the work being done. Then you both spend some time brainstorming about ways to meet both your need for the work to continue and the other person’s family needs to be addressed.

Owning our ‘No’

Finally, yes sometimes we have, as my father used to say, reached the station called ‘STOP’. Yet we are feeling uncomfortable about delivering this message – perhaps it’s guilt at upsetting someone or perhaps it’s just sheer frustration because we know they will get into an argument about it. We also waver because we might have to enforce negative consequences for the other person. Preparation for such interactions require that not only are we clear about the content of our message but more importantly, that it is fully aligned with our own values and/or organisational values and that we are acting with integrity. Preparing in this way allows us to be in a more centred state of mind and also ensures that we will be more likely to remain calmly resolute if the other person is challenging our position. It will also facilitate us to

  • dispel our doubt or guilt about the action we are taking
  • be more patient with the other person’s resistance and attempts to challenge us
  • explain in an authentic and clear way what our rationale is for the actions we feel we have to take
  • be able to calmly educate them about (as opposed to threaten them with) the consequences of not complying
  • feel empowered to respectfully, yet steadfastly, enforce any consequences.

So remember ‘no’ comes in many shapes and sizes – make sure your one is the right fit for the situation!

Bringing Out the Best in People: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective (Part 2)

Did you ever play team sports as a child? If you were anything like me (two left feet!), you were the last one picked for the basketball team. Not only that, but you spent most of the game desperately hoping someone would take pity on you and you’d get thrown the ball just once in the game. All in all not a happy experience, but come on get over it, it’s only a game of basketball.

Or maybe not… Naomi Eisenberger a leading social neuroscientist at University of California designed an experiment in 2003. Volunteers were invited to play a virtual ball game of catch ostensibly with two other people, all of whom were represented by avatars on the screen. Halfway through, their avatar stopped receiving the ball and they observed the other two avatars appearing to throw only to each other. Afterwards, the game players self-reported being quite bothered about being excluded (‘I felt rejected, I felt meaningless’). Furthermore, the brains of the volunteers (they had been lying in an MRI scanner for the duration) showed activity during the time they were ignored in the same parts of the brain (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) as is associated with the distress of physical pain.

Since then many experiments have replicated these findings and scientists are unequivocal about the influence of social interactions on many physiological and neurological reactions. As outlined in the last newsletter, our brains are constantly evaluating events for the level of reward or threat that they might present. Evian Gordon refers to this adaptive motivation as “minimize danger and maximize reward” , a fundamental organising principle of the brain. Our experiences are also mediated by another filter system in the brain which means that threatening or negative stimuli are processed more quickly, more intensely and last longer than reward-offering stimuli. This means that if we are presented simultaneously with a reward and threat-activating behaviours, our attention and energy gets invested in the latter. The profusion of bad versus good news stories in our media is testament to this; how many of us would buy a newspaper full only of happy stories and good news?

Brain-friendly Work Environment: The SCARF Model

The key to creating a ‘brain-friendly’ work environment requires a focus first of all on reducing the potential for the stress-inducing threat response and at the same time, striving to find ways to increase brain rewarding experiences. Leadership expert David Rock has developed a simple model that summarises some of the neuroscience research in this area. Known as the ‘SCARF’ model, it identifies five critical domains of social experience that have the potential to tip us into either threat or reward state of mind.

This refers to how we see ourselves in relation to others. For example, when we feel ‘better’ than another person, our sense of status increases and simultaneously, the primary reward circuitry in the brain is activated. It’s why we enjoy winning at games. Conversely, the prospect of a performance review or negative feedback will cause the threat response to kick in. No surprises, there, few people enjoy hearing negative points about themselves. Yet there is still a strong discourse around the role of ‘feedback’ to help improve people’s performance. The ‘praise sandwich’ version of this attempts to give a nod to the need for positive endorsement but as pointed out above, the negative piece will have a much stronger impact. So being aware of how brain unfriendly they can be is the first step. Rock also advocates ensuring that performance feedback is participative and developmental and that managers strive to acknowledge and appreciate people as much as possible.

Our brains like patterns and predictability. Uncertainty causes the brain to immediately divert valuable thinking resources and attention towards trying to fill these gaps. This is why so many of us find change difficult. Maximising certainty is about giving people road maps – explaining context and background to what’s happening, setting clear objectives, being explicit about expectations. Even where there is ‘bad news’, our brain prefers the certainty of hearing the worst to what might seem like a more supportive approach of only drip feeding the negative in stages to try and lessen the impact.

This refers to the sense of control or choice we feel we have over aspects of our environment or our lives. Every parent knows how much more effective it is to present tasks as choices (‘do you want to read your bedtime story or brush your teeth first’ versus ‘go to bed now or else’). As adults, we are no different, for example micro-managing is a key trigger for most employees. In the workplace, autonomy will always have limitations but there are many ways to facilitate a sense of choice. Daniel Pink, who highlights autonomy as one of three critical motivators, cites a study of workers in an investment bank where managers who offered ‘autonomy support’ to staff reported higher job satisfaction and better performance.

Our brains are wired to categorise people as being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group and is closely linked to how we decide whom we can trust. We trust those who seem to be ‘in our group’ or like us but equally, we withdraw and detach when they do something to breach this trust. It also explains why a dispute or an issue between two people on a team can end up fracturing the whole team. So having an eye to team dynamics and fostering collaboration is essential. Rock cites a Gallup report from 2008 which showed that encouraging ‘water cooler’ conversations increased productivity!

A sense of fair play is a primary need and we react very strongly to being treated unfairly, activating the part of the brain involved in intense emotions such as disgust. Rock also cites research that demonstrates when we feel unfairly treated, we feel rewarded when our superiors are punished. Our fairness triggers are so strong that given a choice between someone winning at our expense or both of us losing; we will more frequently select the latter. In terms of workplace conflict, feeling ‘unfairly treated’ is probably one of the most frequent reasons cited in grievances and complaints against managers. So striving to demonstrate openness and transparency around how decisions are made and be pro-active in this will help to maximise a sense of fairness.

Much of the above is essentially common sense i.e. that people need to be treated fairly or the importance of trust in the workplace. What is less obvious however is that the social needs identified above aren’t simply a set of values that would be nice to aspire to in the modern workplace. Rather, the science is telling us that we are biologically hard-wired to react as strongly to having our social needs disrespected or unmet as to our basic physical and safety needs!


Rock, D. (2008), Scarf: a brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others: NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 44–52

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.

Pink, Daniel (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us


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