When you need to shut someone down or you’re being taken advantage of, “No” is a complete and appropriate answer. But if you want to build a healthy relationship with a coworker, leader, or industry peer, you might want to rethink that one-word sentence. Relationships can involve give and take, and using the word “no” by itself can be dangerous, says Shaun Belding, author of The Journey to WOW.
“The ‘no reflex’ instantly creates an argumentative position,” he says. “It’s a negative message that says you’re not interested in trying. You’re too busy—not a team player. I can’t imagine a worse message to send to a colleague or boss. The next time you need help, you may not get it.”
While you won’t always be able to give people what they ask for or want, you can phrase your response in a better way. “The problem is when somebody’s default position is ‘no,'” he says. “We all know people, who, when you ask them a question, the very first thing out of their mouth is ‘no.’ That can give you a reputation as being somebody that’s negative.”
An offshoot of “no” is “yeah, but,” says Belding. “It’s at the root of every argument,” he says. “Somebody says, ‘Hey, here’s a great idea,’ and you say, ‘Yeah, but.’ It’s the same as ‘no.'”
“No” and “yeah, but” can make a conversation feel like a confrontation. Belding’s company The Belding Group provides services that monitor call centers, listening to the recordings of customer interactions. “Call centers will have a negative incident with a customer who becomes angry and audibly upset, and it becomes worse and worse, but the vast majority didn’t start that way,” he says. “When you rewind the call, you can find the exact moment it went sideways. It’s when emotions turn negative and are lit on fire. It’s almost always when somebody says ‘no’ or ‘yeah, but.’ Those are negative trigger words.”
What to do instead
Before you say, “No,” look for a more productive approach to your answer; there’s no reason not to help someone get what they need, says Belding. Include a qualifier to your response. For example, “I can’t do that, but here’s what I can do.” Or, “I wish I could, let’s try this instead.”
“When you say things like, ‘I wish I could,’ you show empathy,” says Belding. “You’re letting that person know you care about them.”
You can also say, “Yes,” as long as you provide context, says Belding. “If someone asks you for a million dollars, you can say, ‘Yes, as soon as I have it,'” he says.
Saying “no” or “yeah, but” can be a habit. Start paying attention to how you communicate in the workplace; it’s one of the things that you have control over, says Belding.
“A lot of people aren’t aware until they become conscious of it,” he says. “It’s language to learn and unlearn. If you get known in the workplace as that negative person, your career can come grinding to a stop.”
Undoing any bad habit takes practice. “It’s being mindful,” says Belding. “It’s being more tactical with the way you speak, and not as quite off the cuff. How can you expect people to care about you if they don’t believe you care about them?”
Helping others get what they need turns you into a valuable resource. “In today’s workplace, most people are pretty busy,” says Belding. “We’re all stressed. A big part of that is being able to recognize that other people around you are as equally stressed as you. When you help others, you come across as that go-to person—that person others can rely on. Then, when it comes time for promotions and raises, you’re putting yourself in a position of being very, very valuable.”