I see my clients face a continuing challenge when they hear the word NO from their boss or a cross-functional team member. They either see it as an insurmountable barrier to their goals or a little power-play by the other person.
Many of us first learn from our parents and authority figures that the word NO is meant to end conversations. They are final and non-negotiable. According to one UCLA study, the average toddler hears the word No about 400 times a day.
By the time we begin working in our chosen careers, we are conditioned to avoid doing anything that might have our boss say NO to us. We stop asking colleagues for more information that would help us meet project goals. We struggle to make a deadline with insufficient resources.
I want to share a valuable lesson I learned from my friend Steve on how to become fearless when facing the word NO. Steve was the HR manager in charge of employee benefits for a Seattle-area technology company that was being acquired by a comparably sized competitor based in California. The executives wanted the new company to take the best from each company to create an even stronger and larger company. They started transition teams for each department responsible for recommending which practices would become the standard for the combined company.
Steve was on the HR Transition Team, which was led by the HR Director from the California company. The team spent several weeks making a side-by-side comparison of the employee benefits of the two companies. Steve told me that during one of the meetings, he noted that the health care benefits of his company were more generous, more cost-effective, and had a higher employee satisfaction rating than those of the California company. He proposed that the HR Transition Team recommend using his company’s health care plan and negotiating a better rate with the health care provider based on the new company’s size.
“No,” said the HR Director from the California company. “We’re not doing that.” Steve told me that he was surprised by the sudden response and the HR Transition Team leader’s tone of voice. He told me the room went quiet quickly and stayed uncomfortably silent for what seemed like an eternity. Then Steve told me about a verbal judo move anyone can make when they hear the word NO.
Steve broke the silence by asking the HR Transition Team leader, “I understand that this is a new idea, and I’d like some clarification before we move on.” Steve told me the person nodded their approval and added the observation, “What else could they do with my reasonable request?”
Steve asked the HR Transition Team leader, “Which No were you using? Was it an ‘I wasn’t ready for that idea’ NO? Was it a ‘we don’t have time to consider that’ NO? Or, was it an ‘it would take more work to get that done than we have time for’ NO?”
I learned from Steve that being curious about the nature of a NO you are hearing is more powerful than challenging it. Steve told me that it shifted the mood of the meeting and brought new focus to the team mission. In the end, the team did recommend that the combined company adopt the health care plan from his company.
I recommend that the next time you hear the word No from your boss or a colleague at work, don’t be quiet. Take the time to be curious. You might turn their NO into a YES.