Find Mediators Near You:

Saying No to Demands

Excerpted from The Power of a Positive No by William Ury. Copyright © 2007 William Ury. Published by Bantam Books; March 2007;$25.00US/$30.00CAN; 978-0-553-80498-0.

Below are some specific key words or phrases you can use in saying No to the other’s demand in a way that flows naturally from your Yes, your power, and your respect. Remember that your tone and underlying intent need to be congruent with your words if they are to have the right impact.

“No” or “No Thanks”

The simplest word for setting a limit is No. It is a word of pure power. For those of us who shy away from the use of power and have a tendency to accommodate or avoid, it can sometimes be useful to begin our sentences with the word No in order to bring power back into our Nos. “No. I want you to eat food that is good for you, so you cannot fill up on ice cream before dinner,” announces the parent to the child. The No has clarity and directness.

Directness has its place, but it can be expressed gracefully. In a newsreel of Mahatma Gandhi landing in England for peace talks with the British, we see eager reporters asking him to speak into the microphone, and he replies simply, “I think not,” as he continues to walk away, smiling.

Adding a thanks to the No shows respect and care for the relationship. The No protects and the thanks connects. A simple, energetic, appreciative “No thanks” is often enough. If you are dealing with telemarketers who ignore your early response, you can say: “I’m saying No now. [Pause] Thank you! Goodbye.”

“I Have a Policy”

One powerful way to frame the limit you set is in the form of a broader policy of which your No is but one instance. For example, “I have a policy of never serving on boards.” Or “I make it a personal policy never to lend money to friends.” Or “I never respond to phone solicitations.”

When you say that you have a policy, you are signaling that your No is not a one-time message but an ongoing practice to which you have given a lot of thought. It is a signal of resolve, a sign that you will not budge. Of course, this phrase is not to be used lightly or misleadingly as a rigid adversarial position; it works when it is indeed your policy, something you have thought through.

Framing the limit you set as a policy also has the benefit of letting the other know that your No is nothing personal; it is independent of them and their behavior. It is essentially positive. You are not saying No to them as much as you are simply continuing to say Yes to the principles and values by which you have chosen to abide. In short, saying “I have a policy” affirms your interests, backs it up with your power, and gets your relationship off the hook by depersonalizing your No.

Consider the example of a textile manufacturer that was being constantly pressed by its customers for timely fulfillment of their orders. For years, the company responded by accommodation. When a customer would become angry at a delay, the manufacturer would typically respond by an “escalation” — rushing the order through and putting all other orders on hold. The outcome was a dysfunctional system and general dissatisfaction all around. Finally, the company’s leaders faced the problem and hired a team of consultants to figure out a better system of just-in-time manufacturing. To make it work, they formulated a new policy for customers: no escalations. They announced the new policy and, despite the initial pushback from customers, stuck to it.

The end result? The policy of no escalations enabled manufacturing to greatly reduce the complexity of managing the factory and thus allowed the company to turn around orders within two weeks instead of the usual six. Now there were very few delays in orders and no need for escalations — a win for all sides.

“I Have Plans” or “I Have Another Commitment”

One concrete everyday phrase that can affirm your interests as well as your power without spoiling your relationship is “I have plans” or “I have another commitment at that time.” In other words, let the other know that you have already accepted other responsibilities.

To the friend who is inviting you to a party, you can say, ‘I’m sorry. I have plans that night. Thank you!” To the co-worker who is asking you to take on a last-minute project, you can say, “I’d like to help you out, but I have other projects I am committed to finishing before I take on anything else.” To the boss who is asking you to work this weekend on a project, you can say, “I’m sorry. I have an important family commitment this weekend.” To the person who is asking you to take on a new civic responsibility, you can say, “I need to focus on my family/personal life/work/studies right now.”

One client of mine was proposing a very good deal to a new customer. The reply: “Since we have an agreement with your competitor, I cannot consider your offer at this time.” My client felt this was one of the more effective Nos he had ever received because “it claimed the moral high ground by demonstrating that they keep their deals.” They let him know that if he did business with them in the future, he could expect the same kind of honesty and commitment that they were showing toward his competitor.

“Not Now”

It is not easy to say No, especially if you have an important relationship with the other. One way to soften the blow of the No for them, and thus make it easier for you to say No in these circumstances, is to locate your No in time. In other words, use the magic phrase “Not now.”

A customer who is asking you to develop a special technological solution to their problem will find it easier to hear “I’m sorry, but we are not able to provide this kind of solution right now” than to hear a blanket No. Similarly, an employee who is asking you for a raise will find it easier to hear “I’m sorry, but given current economic conditions, it is not possible at the present time.” One employee I know who received this response felt it was effective because “I felt heard, and it left the door open to a Yes in the future.”

To be sure, “Not now” does leave the door open to a future request. So if you are certain that it will never be possible for the employee to have a raise, the customer to have their technological solution, or your child to have a motorcycle, it is usually better to let them know that now. “Not now” is intended for those cases where there does exist a real possibility for addressing the other’s needs in the future.

If the other presses you with “If not now, when?” and you do not know, you can say, “I can’t say. We’ll have to see,” or “I’m sorry, but I can’t tell what the future will bring.”

If the other persists in pressing you hard for an immediate answer to their request and you do not wish to be rushed into a premature decision, you can always respond by saying, “If you need an answer right now, the answer is No.” The other may suddenly discover that they do have the time after all to wait for your considered decision.

“Not now” is a very useful phrase, particularly if you are in doubt. It is better to say “not now” and change your answer later to Yes than it is to say Yes and try to change your answer later to No.

“I Prefer to Decline Rather Than Do a Poor Job”

A school headmaster I know uses this rule of thumb when being asked to take on new responsibilities: “Can I do a good job?” he asks himself. “Do I have the time to do the matter justice, and do I have the skills?” If the answer is No, he says an outright No to the other. His No is actually a Yes to effectiveness and quality standards.

When you decline rather than do a poor job, you are not only affirming your own interests but also paying attention to the relationship. You will both be worse off — and so will your relationship — if you say Yes and then do a job that turns out to be unsatisfactory.

An electronics company, a client of mine, was asked by a leading customer for a new custom-designed product with a tight delivery date. The company’s sales vice president was very tempted to say Yes, but he and his colleagues realized that their production was already under strain and the chances of meeting the customer’s deadline at quality standards were not good. So they said No to the customer, thereby sparing themselves and their customer a lot of dissatisfaction. “It was very hard to do at the time, but it was the best No I ever delivered. And the customer came to appreciate it too, and valued our honesty with them up front,” reflected the sales vice president to me later.

Sometimes the other is asking you to do something simply because they feel insecure about their own abilities. In this case, you can follow up and tell the other, “You will do a much better job! I have confidence in you.” Give them encouragement as you say No.

In short, know your limits, acknowledge them freely, and spend your time on what you can do well. Both you and the other will be better off in the long run.


William Ury

William L. Ury co-founded Harvard's Program on Negotiation and is currently a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project. He is the author of The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No & Still Get to Yes, and co-author (with Roger Fisher) of Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Heat and Humidity in Motown: The Role Of Physical Environment

I survived the blackout of 2003! I was in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan outside of Detroit conducting advanced mediation training for a group of experienced Michigan mediators. About 4 pm on...

By Douglas Noll

Juliana Birkhoff: Working With Uninformed or Ill-Willed Parties – Video

Juliana Birkhoff talks about working with parties who have bad motives or are uninformed. When this happens, she adapts her process so the outcome will not be heavily impacted by...

By Juliana E. Birkhoff Ph.D.

Trauma-Informed Care in Mediation

(This article was first published in the Oakland County Legal News on May 30 and June 27, 2023.) "The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to...

By Laura Athens