Managing Self

Monday morning practice – wielding your positive no

Written by Allison Wolf

This is the time of year when we are all bouncing from one deadline to another and requests are coming at us from all directions.

One of the best ways I have found for keeping my head above water is having the ability to say No when I need to.

Saying No is hard, and the best resource I have found for learning to say No effectively is William Ury’s book The Power of a Positive No.

Here’s what a Positive No looks like in practice:

Jeff was a victim of his own success. As a first year associate he had focused on the strategy of working hard, doing his best work, and being responsive to the partners. The result was that he became a favorite of many of lawyers in his practice group and had an overflowing plate of work. But instead of being able to celebrate his success, he was starting each day in complete fear about dropping balls and missing deadlines.

In the middle of the busiest week of his career, a partner he hadn’t worked with before, Julia, emailed to ask him to get involved with a transaction that was heating up.

Julia had a reputation for being a great mentor, and was admired for her rigorous work ethic. Jeff had wanted to work with her for a long time. He also knew that if he took on her transaction he would have to let other work slide, and most likely would not be able to perform at the level she required.

Jeff paused to think about why he was panicking about Julia’s offer. He was overcommitted. He was already at risk of missing deadlines, and of making mistakes from working too quickly on some complex files. He valued doing good work and his relationship with the lawyers he was working with, and it was very important to him to keep his word.

What Jeff realised he needed to say Yes to, was honouring his commitments, and providing the lawyers with excellent work product on time.

A No to Julia was a Yes to these critical commitments and his core values.

What could he offer Julia he wondered?

He looked at his schedule. The crushing workload would be past in about a week. After that he could be available to assist Julia.

Jeff met with Julia and explained that he had been wanting to work with her for some time and that the transaction sounded like a great learning opportunity for him.

He explained that unfortunately the timing was bad because he was currently working with Bob on a financing, Terry on the sale of a sporting good chain, and Suzanne on an acquisition. Given the timing he couldn’t say Yes to her because he would not be able to be available to her and the clients, and would not be able to give the transaction the focus and attention required.

He then offered up an option for her. If the transaction wasn’t heated up yet, he could be available to join her deal team in a week once he was through the current rush.

Julia thought about it and said she would manage with the other associate she was working with and if they needed the extra help they would involve Jeff the following week.

She then added, “I appreciate your honesty. I have found that too often associates will overcommit themselves and then I am left in a tough spot at the last minute. I heard you were dependable, and now I see why. I have another deal coming up later this month and will get you involved on that one.”

Professional life is full of those moments when someone asks us for something and we know the right thing to do is to say No, and yet we feel compelled to say Yes.

The Monday morning practice this week is about saying No when you need to, using Ury’s Postive No approach.

This week try out your own Positive No.

When asked for something that you don’t want to agree to, find a moment to pause.

Then uncover your Yes with these questions:

  • Why do I want to say No to this?
  • What will No help me to create? What other things or person/s do I actually want to say Yes to?
  • What is saying No helping me to protect? Which of my core interests, needs, or values are at risk if I say Yes?

Once you have a grasp of your Yes, it becomes much easier to deliver your respectful No.

Ury writes:

“There is no doubt that delivering a Positive No requires courage, vision, empathy, fortitude, patience, and persistence. Changing old patterns takes practice. Fortunately, each of us is offered many opportunities a day to practice saying No. Think of it like exercise. You are building your Positive No muscle. With daily exercise, that muscle will get stronger and stronger. With practice and reflection, anyone can improve greatly at the art of saying No.”

I highly recommend The Power of Positive No for every lawyer’s bookshelf.

For a quick introduction to the Positive No, and to help you with practicing your Positive No this week, read Ury’s Positive No article in the Oxford Leadership journal on-line.

Wishing you success with working your No muscle!

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.

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