Anneli Knight
Smarter Writer

Anneli Knight is a journalist, writer and academic with a background in law and finance. She lives in Byron Bay

Anneli Knight
Smarter Writer

Anneli Knight is a journalist, writer and academic with a background in law and finance. She lives in Byron Bay

When you are passive, you risk compromising your needs. When you are aggressive, the other person might be compromised. Assertiveness is a middle ground and there’s a simple technique that can lead to a win-win.

Woman putting hand up

Do you go into silence or violence?

“When someone is demanding something of us and we feel unsafe, we have a natural tendency to respond in either a passive or aggressive way, or to go into ‘silence’ or ‘violence’,” says Andi. “Most people will know what their natural tendency is.”

An example of passive behaviour, or silence, would include saying yes to working until midnight to finish a report because your manager requests it, rather than getting home at a more reasonable hour to spend time with family.

“They’ll actually breach the things that are more important to them in order to satisfy that person in the moment. This often happens because it is easier to say yes than no,” says Andi.

For others, aggressive or verbally ‘violent’ responses, which are often driven by strong emotional knee-jerk reactions, can lead to a breakdown in effective communication (both in the short- and long-term when relationships are affected), and a reduction in productivity.

When someone is demanding something of us, we have a natural tendency to respond in either an aggressive or passive way.

Andi Pert, Xplore for Success

The power of a positive no

As an alternative to passive or aggressive, an assertive response can leave an individual feeling empowered while also exploring ways to have the needs of the other person met.

Harvard University researcher, William Ury, spent years considering the most effective ways to handle a passive ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ response, and found that the middle ground of assertiveness can be best expressed through a term he calls a ‘positive no’, and he has since authored the book The Power of a Positive No.

Three simple steps to a 'positive no'

  1. First, say ‘yes’ to yourself, your values and your needs. Often this may be a silent yes: checking with yourself and not speaking this out loud, but considering what is most important to you.
  2. Second, you say ‘no’ to the request. This should be a simple and unapologetic no, delivered with as little emotion and ‘story’ as possible.
  3. Third is to say ‘yes’ by offering an alternative solution that will create a win-win outcome.
In order to answer the first yes to yourself, it’s important to have some self-awareness around your needs, values and priorities. For example, if your top priority is to advance your career by working towards a significant promotion, then your answer to a work request might be different to someone who has identified their top priority as spending time with family.

Finding the win-win

Sometimes your final yes is about opening the discussion to explore competing needs. The great skill is to integrate the yes and the no, to enable you to be true to yourself and respectful of agreements and valued relationships. This takes courage, empathy and practise.

So when someone next asks you to work late to complete a piece of urgent work, start with saying yes to yourself first, and asking yourself, ‘Is this something you can do or want to do, does it fit with your needs and priorities?’

If the answer is yes, then go ahead and say yes, but if no, test being courageous and saying, ‘No, I can’t stay back tonight,’ and maybe ask another question, ‘When do you actually need it by,’ or ‘Who else may be able to assist?’ or ‘Do you actually need the report tonight? Would 12 tomorrow work with your timeframes?’

Key takeaway

The positive no is about opening up possibilities for discussion, which may sometimes lead to creative or unexpected outcomes that have the advantage of bringing a mutually beneficial solution.

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