Skip to Main Content (Press Enter)

The Power of a Positive No Reader’s Guide

By William Ury

The Power of a Positive No by William Ury


William Ury and Roger Fisher’s Getting to Yes has become one of the top bestselling books in the world on negotiation, with over six million copies in print. More than twenty-five years since the publication of that classic, in a high-stress world now filled with demanding e-mails, overbooked calendars, and eroding ethics, getting to Yes is clearly only part of the equation. Getting to the right Yes is what really matters.

Drawing on his revolutionary research, as well as his experience serving as a negotiator in countries such as Chechnya and Venezuela, Ury now shares a powerful guide revealing how a positive No can ultimately save a deal, a relationship, a family, or a career. Making his remarkable three-step method available to everyone–with concepts from the acclaimed course he teaches at Harvard University–The Power of a Positive No provides breakthrough strategies for resisting manipulation without alienating those who matter the most. For anyone who feels torn between being the “bad cop” and facing a deluge of impossible requests, this is a book that can help all readers rediscover the greatest measures of success: a healthy, satisfying life, and long-lasting partnerships built on integrity.

Whether you read The Power of a Positive No with your co-workers, your family, or your friends, we hope that the following discussion topics will enrich your experience of William Ury’s insightful wisdom.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Think of a time when it felt important to say no, whether you did so to your satisfaction or not. What happened? How did it affect you?

2. William Ury’s introduction begins with the poignant story of his daughter’s illness and the difficulty of navigating the healthcare system.What makes contemporary healthcare such an intimidating realm when it comes to negotiation? How could the Positive No help you transform your physical health?

3. Which of the “Three-A”traps do you encounter most often: Accommodate, Attack, or Avoid, or a combination of all three? When have these traps created disharmony or dishonesty in your community? What is your own tendency and thus your learning edge—do you tend to accommodate, attack, or avoid, or all three?

4. Ury recommends “going to the balcony” to dispel the anger or fear that can undermine a negotiation from the start. What techniques help you “go to the balcony”? What ritual can you create for yourself to implement this? If you try viewing a current conflict situation in your life from a balcony perspective, what do you notice?

5. In uncovering the roots of your fundamental Yes, what interests, needs, and values are central to you? What will it mean to say yes to yourself? What principles are you willing to protect at all costs? Go beyond your first response, asking yourself why that interest, need, or value matters to you so much.

6. The Power of a Positive No is full of memorable examples of those who were prepared to say no to a Goliath, from Rosa Parks (a dedicated civil rights activist) to corporations such as Snapper, which flourished after refusing to comply with Wal-Mart’s demands for continuous price cuts. Discuss a point of contention that has been worrying you in recent weeks. Following Ury’s notion of a Plan B, what backup plan could you create to empower yourself and ensure that your interests are met, even if a negotiated agreement falls through?

7. Chapter Two ends with three questions to ask yourself before saying No. What are the best ways to determine whether you have the interest, the power, and the right to say no? Have you ever had a visceral sense of your interest, power, and right to say no? When? What happened?

8. What did the book help you discover about your own No style? In what circumstances have you found it especially difficult to feel respect for another person? What are the common ingredients in the true stories found in this chapter, such as federal prisoner Troy Chapman’s way of communicating “I have no need of an enemy” when confronting a sidewalk standoff, or the nonviolent resolution witnessed by aikido student Terry Dobson?

9. Do you or those you know resort to using the subtle “attack” words described in chapter four? What is the origin of our impulse to make use of “shoulding,” or judgmental statements, or categorical exaggerations? Try re-phrasing a judgmental statement in more neutral language.

10. Which of the assertive phrases for saying no in chapter five will be easiest for you to add to your everyday conversation style? In what ways can these phrases strengthen relationships that had previously been damaged by words?

11. How can you ensure that you’ve applied the distinctions between warnings and threats in your negotiating style? What is the best way to detect manipulative threats, guilt-trips, and slippery-slope predictions in the language of those with whom you’re negotiating?

12. Chapter Nine distinguishes positions from interests, with ideas for developing an understanding of the motivations behind someone’s claims. What are the interests of some of your rivals? What interests do you share? What opportunities for collaboration might exist between you and those who seem to stand in your way currently? What might their “acceptance speech” look like?

13. Which of the personal stories or quotations was most memorable for you? In what way can you use that narrative or image to remind yourself of your own interests, reinforce your courage, and thus stand up for yourself without damaging the relationship?

14. Participate in a role-playing exercise with the members of your group. Choose someone in your life who has been a particularly hard bargainer (think of Dick Goodwin’s challenge with LBJ). Drawing on Ury’s strategies, practice how you will interact with this difficult person in the future. Make notes of the words that feel natural yet effective to you. The next time your group meets, share the results of your real-life Yes! No. Yes? dialogues. [Below please find a set of instructions for a Positive No exercise, if you would like to use them]

15. Engage in a visionary discussion regarding the Positive No. Beginning on a very local level–your close family members, your team at work, or a community group–envision what daily life would look like if everyone in that circle practiced these principles. Next, expand the vision to a broader scope, eventually arriving at the kinds of geopolitical situations in which Ury has been involved. What kinds of suffering, waste, and loss could be avoided through the practice of a Positive No?

16. In what way does The Power of a Positive No complement and relate to Getting to Yes and Getting Past No? What are the fundamental messages of the trilogy as a whole?

Mutual Consulting Exercise

The exercise will give you an opportunity to work on your Positive No, to rehearse it in front of others, and to receive feedback, so you can improve it.

1. Form into groups of three.

2. Write down your Yes No Yes. Take a few minutes by yourself to write your “Yes! No. Yes?” for your own negotiating situation:
a. First work on your “Yes!” What do you want to say Yes to? What are your underlying interests—desires, needs, concerns, values? What do you stand for? You might begin your sentence with “I stand for . . .,” “I need . . .,” or “I want . . .” and then fill in the blank.
b. Now work on your ‘No’. What exactly are you wanting to say No to? What demand or request do you wish to refuse? What behavior do you wish to change? You might begin your sentence with, “I say No to . . . or I choose not to do . . .” and then fill in the blank. This is your matter-of-fact “No.”
c. Now work on your ‘Yes?’ What, in other words, is your yes-able proposal? What are you offering or suggesting to the Other? What would you like them to do? You might begin with your sentence with “I propose the following: . . .” and then fill in the blank.

3. Rehearse your Positive No in your group of three. One person recites their “Yes! No. Yes?” to the two others in their group. The Positive No might take the following form “Because I stand for X, I say No to Y, and I propose Z.”

4. Give feedback. After one person recites their Positive No, the two others give feedback. Assess whether you thought the No was too accommodating, too attacking, or too avoiding, or just right. Then give the person verbal feedback:
a. Was the “Yes!” strong, clear, powerful?
b. Was the “No.” matter-of-fact, clear, strong, without an edge, a simple pronouncement of a new reality?
c. Was the “Yes?” clear, operational, specific, realistic?

5. Now give them a chance to try again. Give the person a second chance to try out their Positive No after having heard your feedback. Again give them feedback. Now give the person a third chance and give them feedback one last time.

6. Repeat for the second and third persons in the group. Repeat steps 3, 4, 5, for the other persons in the group.

7. Discuss any general lessons in the group of three. First take a minute to edit your Positive No in the light of the feedback you received. Then discuss with your two colleagues:
a. What is difficult for you about delivering a Positive No?
b. What works? What helps you in saying a Positive No?
c. Any surprises or reflections?

Back to Top