How to Use a Positive No to Strengthen Relationships

One Technique That Will Make Communicating Your Preferences Much Easier

Neel Raman
5 min readAug 9, 2019

If we learn how to use a positive no to communicate what’s important, it will make things easier for us.

Every day, we’re dealing with many demands on our attention, time, expertise or resources. Saying no can be uncomfortable and cause us to say yes when we don’t want to.

Saying no to many things or requests is mandatory if we want to say yes to the right things or requests.

This is where learning how to use a positive no is helpful to stay true to our priorities, without affecting our relationships.

What is a Positive No?

Harvard Professor William Ury, shared the concept of a positive no, in his book, The Power of a Positive No.

A positive no is a way to respond to a request that works for everyone, without affecting the relationship or our priorities.

Using a positive no makes it easier to decline a request made on us, while being respectful of the person making the request.

The Costs of Not Knowing How to Use a Positive No

If we don’t use the concept of a positive no, and agree to something when we don’t want to, it can:

  • Lead to emotions of resentment, frustration or anger.
  • Take our focus away from what’s important.
  • Delay what we want to get done.
  • Cause us to waste time doing something that’s not beneficial.
  • Reduce our confidence and level of self-trust.

Something as simple as saying no the right way can affect us and those we interact with.

the power of a positive no

The Benefits of Knowing How to Use a Positive No

If we use a positive no correctly, it will:

  • Allow us to protect our interests or priorities.
  • Help us communicate our preferences clearly.
  • Enable us to say no without feeling regret or guilt.
  • Make it easier for us to say yes to the right things.

How to Use a Positive No Effectively

Learning how to use a positive no is very similar to the “sandwich method” when giving feedback.

There are three components when using a positive no. It’s built around a yes-no-yes formula.

  1. Start with a yes. Here we first want to acknowledge and receive the request made on us. We don’t want to resent, discredit or shame someone for making the quest.
  2. Respond with a clear no. Here we want to clearly and respectfully communicate that our answer is no. We don’t have to explain why if we don’t want to. This is about staying true to our existing priorities or commitments.
  3. End with a yes. Here we want to acknowledge the request again and offer an alternative solution to the person’s request. This is about exploring other possibilities that can still meet the person’s desired outcome.

An Example of Using a Positive No Effectively

Here’s an example of someone wanting to meet with you to ask for help on a project they’re working on. To use a positive no effectively, your response may go something like:

  1. Start with a yes. Thanks for reaching out. I’m honoured that you thought of me for this project of yours. I can tell this project is important to you.
  2. Respond with a clear no. However, because of my current commitments and priorities, I have to say no.
  3. End with a yes. Knowing this project is important to you, here is a resource that may help (include link). You could contact so-and-so (provide person’s name) who may help you. I wish you all the best with your project.


Knowing how to use a positive no takes away any discomfort we may feel when saying no to someone. It’s also a much better way to decline something and still feel good about how we did it.

It will take practice to get used to responding using a positive no. The more we practice using it, the easier it will get and the more confident we’ll feel using it.

Action Step: Next time someone makes a request that you want to say no to, practice using a positive no. Learn from that experience and continue using it until it becomes the way you say no.

Question: What difference will it make if you learn how to use a positive no effectively?

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Neel Raman

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