"Yes" to the Person, "No" to the Task

Asserting Yourself While Maintaining Relationships

Saying No

Offer an alternative to a straight "No".

© iStockphoto/jacus

The word "negotiation" conjures up images of high-pressure situations, where people have a lot to lose if they get things wrong.

In fact, you probably negotiate several times each day. You do it at home and at work for all sorts of things, from deciding what to make for dinner, to settling on terms for a job promotion.

Because of this, you are a negotiator, even if you don't think of yourself as one! But how well do you negotiate? Do you know how to recognize situations where negotiating is appropriate? And do you understand the elements of an effective negotiation?

In this article, we'll discuss some of the fundamentals of negotiating successfully, so that you can meet your needs without causing conflict when you do have to say "no".

Negotiating Basics

Negotiation is simply the act of reaching agreement as to how you'll move forwards. It's the process of communicating back and forth, and finally having all parties agree to a solution.

There are many ways to arrive at this agreement. Some people view negotiation as a game they have to win. They use "hard" negotiation tactics, and this often leaves one party very satisfied and the other side with no choice but to agree. The problem with this approach is that the relationship between the two parties is often permanently damaged. The person asking for something may receive it, but the second person probably feels taken advantage of and, perhaps, angry and resentful. If it wasn't really a willing "yes," the second person is unlikely to complete the work quickly, or with a positive attitude.

The opposite approach is to accommodate. This is when one party yields his or her position and original goal, simply agreeing to what the other person wants. This "soft" tactic is often the result of wanting to keep relationships friendly. The end result, however, is that this person doesn't get what's needed, and he or she loses control to the other person.

Negotiations that aim for mutually satisfying outcomes are often best. These are sometimes called collaborative, integrative, or principled negotiations. The techniques used to conduct these help negotiators find a solution that shows high concern for the needs of both sides. The result is a win-win   solution: rather than one side giving up a "position," the focus is on finding a new position where everyone is happy and is satisfied.

In the book "Getting to Yes," based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, authors Roger Fisher and William Ury outline four parameters for principled negotiation:

  1. Separate the people from the problem.
  2. Focus on interests, not positions.
  3. Generate a variety of possibilities before making a decision.
  4. Define objective standards as the criteria for making the decision.

If you use these elements as the basis of your negotiation, you'll be more able to find creative solutions to the problems you're trying to solve.

Assertiveness and Negotiation

To use the principles of principled negotiation, you must be assertive. Forget the idea that negotiation means giving something up. Instead, this new process frees you to get what you need.

So, when your boss asks you to be on another committee, and you don't really have the time, you don't have to say "yes" or "no." Instead, approach the situation as an opportunity to negotiate.

Does the new committee offer career development opportunities that fit with your long-term objectives? If yes, perhaps you can give up another assignment in exchange, or maybe you can negotiate hiring an assistant so that you can reduce your workload. This might even be the time to renegotiate your job description and redefine your roles and responsibilities within the organization!


See our articles on assertiveness   and managing your boundaries   for a full discussion of these topics and tips on how to communicate more assertively.

Whatever the situation, if you view negotiation as a collaboration, you say "yes" to the other person by respecting his or her needs - at the same time that you give yourself the opportunity to say "no" to the task itself.

When to Say "No" to the Task

Not all requests should be negotiated. Sometimes when your boss asks you to do something, you need to say "no".

Here are some key questions to ask before saying "no" to a task:

  • Do I have time to do it?
  • Am I the right person for the task?
    • Is someone else best suited to the job?
  • Does this request fit with my goals and objectives?

If your answer to any of these questions is "no," then you may be best off saying "no". (There's more on how to do this below!)

On the other hand, it's usually unprofessional to say "no" to a task just because you don't want to do it, you don't understand how to do it, it will take a long time, or it's messy and complex.

How to Say "Yes" to the Person but "No" to the Task

If your answer to the task request is "no," then figure out how to say "yes" to the person at the same time. To do this, make sure that you explain your justification, so that it's clear that you're only saying "no" to this particular task - and possibly only on this occasion. If the other person understands why you've said "no", they are less likely to be left with the impression that you're simply being unhelpful. However, you may also have to be firm about how you say "no".

As we've discussed, saying "yes to the person and no to the task" may also mean negotiating different arrangements to accommodate the request in a different way.

To say "yes" to the person, first answer three main questions:

  • What does this person really need?
    • Find areas of flexibility.
    • Determine priorities.
  • How else can this person's need be met?
    • Find a different frame of reference or approach to the problem.
    • Look for time and resource alternatives.
  • How can I support this person to have the need met?
    • Define the larger goal.
    • Look for common interests and needs.

High levels of trust and good communication are essential to this process. Although there's no guarantee that trust will lead to a good solution, mistrust will almost certainly harm collaboration. People who don't trust each other tend to be defensive, and this often leads people to look for ‘hidden agendas' or withhold information.

When people trust each other, they're more likely to communicate their needs accurately. When they share information about what they want, what they need, and why they need it, this can lead people to cooperate to look for a joint solution. And when you work in an environment of respect and trust, it's much easier to reach agreement without compromising your needs in the process.


Saying "yes" to the person but "no" to the task generally involves a conversation, rather than just a one-sentence response. However, here are some examples of how you can do so in simple situations.

"I'm sorry, I can't do that analysis this week. Can I do it for you next Tuesday after month end is complete?"

"I'm sorry, I can't take on doing this analysis on a regular basis because Alex wants me to prioritize development work. But I know Jane is working on developing her Excel skills. Would you like me to show her how to extract the data so she can take this on?"

"I could do that analysis, but I wondered what information you actually want from it. If it's the conversion rate from the advertising campaign, would one of the measures in the report that Marketing sends round give you what you need?"

Key Points

We all negotiate, and we do so regularly. And even though the extents of our negotiations vary, one principle remains the same: when both parties win, the outcome is often better. Whether someone asks you for a favor, or you need to agree on terms for a contract or project, you must collaborate to achieve a win-win solution.

When you collaborate, you consider everyone's needs. Therefore, even if you have to say "no" to something, you're still concerned about finding a way to get the other person's needs met, and this allows you to say "yes" to the person. Integration and collaboration are keys to this process. So, the next time you have to negotiate, look for a way to meet everyone's needs, rather than leave one side with little or nothing.

Many thanks to Club member MichaelP who came up with the phrase "Say YES to the person and NO to the task" in this discussion in the Career Café forum.

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Comments (10)
  • Midgie wrote This month
    Hi Luuuttt,
    I'm not sure I understand what you mean by 'something wrong'. Yet, if I needed more information and more details before accepting to take on a project, I would most certainly ask for them.

    Saying something along the lines of 'before I agree to do this project, I need a bit more information. Can we meet to discuss further?' Alternately, list out what information and details you need in an email to seek clarification before making a final decision.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Luuuttt wrote This month
    the manager is asking you do a project but there was something wrong with it, are you going to follow it? yes or no?
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi RachelRoddam,
    I think all of us could benefit from creating clear boundaries with others when we communicate and interact.

    I do find that by being clear on things that I will, and will not, do or accept has been very powerful for me. I do feel more empowered that I can 'hold my ground' and be firm with my position. I also feel less resentful which used to happen when I didn't have clear boundaries and did things I didn't really want to! It did take some time and practice, yet I learned that it was OK to say NO to things!

    How do you find having clear boundaries has helped you?

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks!! I'm going to look into it further.

  • RachelRoddam wrote Over a month ago
    I studied a weekend course plus went to a weekly practice group. NVC can be complex to learn. Many people find it simple to learn. Either way, it can be a challenge to PRACTICE and there is great value in joining a local or online study group, keeping an NVC diary, or studying the workbook. My advice to interested parties - attend a 2 day course, or if availability or cost prohibits, study with the workbook.

    One more point: I firmly believe NVC is ineffective to use with those suffering Narcissistic Personality Disorder, because they are resistant to making themselves vulnerable by honestly expressing their needs. NVC is however useful in identifying these people and hence empowering us to put up boundaries.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks for the lead to a complementary tool Rachel. Is this an area you work in or are particularly practised? In my experience it's one of the more difficult communication issues so it would be great to hear more.

  • RachelRoddam wrote Over a month ago
    Non violent communication is a great tool for recognising the needs of ourselves and others. Its a great tool for finding connection, and will tell you quickly if the other party's agenda is not being brought to the table with honesty. Great also for those who need to practice putting up boundaries. Check it out as an extension to lessons learned in this article.
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    I enjoyed reading this and appreciate the acknowledgement thank you.

    I have always applied this principal in the same order Yes to the person first - then No to the task. This way you make the person more open to your response.

    The converse is also true when the person hear's the no first they tend to put up their defenses and are less likely to appreciate the yes.

    Additionally saying "yes" doesn't at all mean you have to agree, its more about recognition. one of the powerful negotiation ice breakers is indeed the question...do you accept that we are entitled to our different opinions?

    negotiating for the WIN WIN is the only way to go.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    I loved this article because in essence it helps us become more assertive as well. Saying no to a person is a lot more difficult than saying no to a task. My favourite used to be : "I'd love to help you now, but I'm really snowed under. Would you mind asking someone else?" Unless of course if it was something that I HAD to do.

    Kind regards
  • USGTraining wrote Over a month ago
    I used this concept in my "Managing Upward" course recently. Many people don't know how to say "No" to their manager.
    We suggest that you say no, without really saying no.
    As William Ury says in The Power of A Positive No, give them a "Yes, No, Yes" type answer.
    This is a wonderful skill to have in your toolbelt!

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