Hearing No

IMG_2509Well-organised and well-motivated change programmes fail if someone says ‘no’ and we hear ‘yes’. This happens more often than you might think.

We say: “Please communicate the following important information to all your direct reports by Monday.”

We get the response:
       “I’ll do my best”
       “I’ll see what I can do”
       “I’ll find out if Jay can do it”
       “Leave it with me”

None of these are commitments to action. They are polite and gentle versions of the answer “no”. The speaker is trying to keep their options open. They don’t know whether they can do it or not, and so neither do you. It is important that you recognise this, or you might walk away with the idea that something will happen, and in fact the other person did not undertake to do anything at all.

Change programmes fail not because someone says ‘no’, but because they said ‘no’ and you heard ‘yes’.

We hear ‘yes’ when someone says ‘no’ because we desperately want to hear ‘yes’, or because we want a quiet life, or because we are at a loss to deal with the answer ‘no’ in all its forms. We sometimes hear ‘yes’ because it is the only response we will accept.

Here are some possible responses to the equivocal statements above:
     “Is that a definate ‘yes’? “
     “Can you give me an idea of how likely it is to happen, on a scale of one to ten?”
     “If you can’t do it by Monday, when could you guarantee to do it by?”
     “When can you get back to me with a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

The idea is to get into a genuine dialogue about what can be done, ending in a clear commitment to act. The action agreed may be different from, or lesser than, your original request. But it will come with commitment. A clear commitment to do something small is worth more than a vague intention to do something large.

What we are addressing is the fundamental issue of accountability. In order to get things to happen, someone has to take accountability for action. What you are aiming to do in the dialogues here is to have a clear line of accountability. If you obtain a genuine ‘yes’ in response to your request, then the other person has accepted accountability, and you can hold them to it. If you don’t obtain a ‘yes’ then it is all rather fluid and things might happen or they might not, and it’s going to be difficult to hold anyone accountable.

All of this only works if you, as someone who makes a request or gives an instruction, is open to the answer ‘no’. A ‘yes’ that is forced is not a ‘yes’ at all. You have to be ready to hear ‘no’ and they have to have the courage to say it. It takes courage to say ‘no’ outright, which is why people use formulations such as “I’ll see what I can do”. People don’t want to be negative or discouraging, and they want to please, or don’t want to displease. Yet these conversational devices obscure the clarity in lines of accountability, and mean that things don’t get done.

The answer ‘no’ is useful. Make sure you hear it.

Categories: Conversations which work

2 replies

  1. “Leave it with me”

    I am too trusting. So many times I have heard that phrase. Very rarely did anything get done. Next time I know what to do. Thank you.


  1. Why don’t people just do as I say? – Making Change Happen

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