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The Art of Saying Yes and No

Posted 12 February 2016 | By Shilpa Mydur 

The Art of Saying Yes and No

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are two simple words in the English language, but they generate a vast array of mind-boggling complexities when used incorrectly—whether intentionally or unintentionally.

How many of us have said yes when we actually wanted to say—or should have said—no, and vice versa? Imagine you are invited to party you have no desire to attend, and inside you are screaming “no,” but you say yes because you do not want to offend the host or wish others to think you anti-social.

Extend this to the office setting where you just accepted yet another assignment from your co-worker or boss you must now fit into your already hectic schedule. On the contrary, imagine you went to a meeting with this great new idea that you think can cut down the regulatory submission timelines by weeks and your manager immediately says ‘No, this can’t be done.’

These two simple and short words pack a lot of power in human communication and when we learn to use them correctly and without guilt, they can aid in building instead of destroying great relationships, ideas and events.

This was exactly what the leadership team of the RAPS San Francisco chapter hoped to learn in its first-of-a-kind annual professional development event on 16 December 2015. This great holiday event was made possible thanks to the kind and timely support from RAPS global headquarters.

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The three-hour dynamic and engaging learning session aptly titled “RAPS: Rules for Agreeing, Pushing Back, and Skill-building. Improving our Self-image, Credibility, Negotiation Skills and Meeting Management Abilities” covered topics in interpersonal communication and leadership areas related to credibility, negotiation skills, and meeting management skills with the underlying theme of how to use yes and no to better enable us to handle requests affecting our time, money or energy.

The training was conducted by professional speaker and trainer, Craig Harrison, founder of Expressions of Excellence, a training firm helping professionals express themselves powerfully as communicators and leaders. He has been interviewed by 60 Minutes and BBC radio, profiled in The Wall Street Journal, and his articles have appeared in various magazines and journals, including Toastmaster magazine. Harrison’s client list includes Fortune 50 companies as well as start-ups, associations and various societies. He is the past president of the National Speakers Association of Northern California and founder of its ProTrack Speakers Academy.

The session was preceded by dinner and a recap of chapter events over the past year, then participants engaged in a fun “rebranding” exercise followed by a deep dive into the learning objectives of using yes and no in negotiations, meetings, brainstorming sessions, delivering bad news and maintaining credibility. Read on for more details.

Tagline Rebranding Exercise

It has been said that perception is reality. How we cast ourselves is important to both the influence we have over others and the credibility we exude. How do you get others to think ‘Yes, I want to connect with this person,’ and draw them in?

As part of an interactive exercise, Harrison asked us to reflect on who we are and who we are not, and challenged us to cast ourselves in a positive light, by creating a new tagline. He gave examples such as IRS agent who described himself as a “government fundraiser,” a bank creditor describing himself with the line, “I give credit where credit is due,” and a gardener whose motto is “I turn the world green.”

Some of the creative taglines for our work as regulatory professionals that were shared with the group included:

  • I turn chaos into compliance.
  • We are the first line of defense
  • We put extra into ordinary.
  • I save the company’s “BOTTOM” line!
  • We take care of details so you don’t have to.

Taglines tell the tale and “how we see ourselves affects how others see us,” Harrison emphasized in wrapping up the exercise.

Saying ‘Yes’

The ability to freely express ideas and to build on one another’s ideas is crucial to team success. As an illustration, we brainstormed on the mock topic of mentorship programs for our chapter. We quickly realized how we sometimes unknowingly squelch one another’s ideas by using negative words and phrases like ‘no,’ ‘you cannot do that’ or ‘it sounds great but…”

As an antidote, we were asked to say yes to every idea that was shared and further build on it. We were amazed to see how that simple change added such a spark to our discussions and led to an avalanche of ideas. Using ‘yes’ or ‘yes and…’ offer a way to accept your collaborator’s idea and further build on it.

Harrison also emphasized that using these positive phrases gives us “a great tool for brainstorming, ideation, problem solving, breaking out of ruts and thinking creatively.”

The Power of Listening

We then moved on to an important topic that forms the backbone of communication: the power of listening.

Effective listening is important for any kind of communication, whether it’s brainstorming, debrief meetings, negotiations or some other interaction. During this session, we learned that the Chinese character for the verb “to listen,” is ting. Ting comprises characters for the ear, the eye, the heart and the mind, and this reminds us that when we listen, “we listen with our whole self, united in one heart.” In other words, listening is a total body activity.

A lot of invisible yet powerful communication occurs when we actively “listen” to facial expressions, verbal utterances and body language. It is important to pay attention not only to the communicator’s literal message, but also to understand the unheard “meta-message” or implied message. Very often, people who don’t actively listen fail to connect with their audience and are thus unable to negotiate, lead or contribute effectively in meetings and other situations, and end up losing credibility.

An average person spends about 45% of his time listening and is further impacted by the fact that there is a lag time for all of us to process what we hear. We played a game called “the listening conundrum” to illustrate this. The game was to pass an object left or right between the participants upon hearing the words “left” or “right” in a story narrated by the presenter. We had great fun with this game and also observed that not everyone could keep up with listening and processing the information at the same time, leading to confusion among the team members.

This has real-life implications, especially in meetings where not all participants are on the same page, and hence affect productivity. If you do not understand or have failed to completely listen to what the other person is asking or telling you, it’s a great idea to summarize what you have heard or understood thus far and ask for further clarification if needed. This will help meetings and other communications to be streamlined and flow more smoothly. In a nutshell, “unless you listen effectively, you:

  • Can’t lead or contribute effectively to meetings
  • Won’t build trust, understanding or rapport
  • Will be perceived as selfish and self-serving
  • Will find people won’t want to work with you
  • Will discover people won’t share ideas with you
  • Can’t negotiate effectively

Saying ‘No’

After learning how important and difficult it is to say ‘yes,’ the next session did a complete pivot and we learnt how important and difficult it is to say ‘no’ as we learned more on negotiation skills. In the famous words of Tony Blair, “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes”.

The skill of saying no develops over the course of time. You have got to learn to say no. There will be demanding situations that tempt you to say yes, and Harrison gave us this mantra to use during those times: if the decision taken will impact your time, money and energy, you have the right to say no.

Some techniques to help control the urge to say yes and reject the pressure to decide immediately include explaining that you want to make an informed decision, getting a second opinion, making sure that you sleep on it, checking your calendar or confirming with your partner if needed. You can always delay the decision by mentioning that you already have a lot on your plate and that you need to some time to get back to the person asking. Delaying your decision helps you “get off the flowing river and rest on the shore and decide peacefully,” said Harrison.

Another useful tool is the power of suggestion. You can always propose an alternative and give a choice. You may say, ‘here is what I can’t do, but I can do this.’  The golden rule when saying no is to say it and thank the person for asking. Another way of looking at no is to change its “flavor” from rejection to redirection. You can achieve that by using some of the following phrases:

  • ‘I wish I could, however…’
  • ‘Here’s what I can do…’
  • ‘Here are some resources available to assist you…’
  • ‘Have you considered…?’
  • ‘Have you approached [person X] yet?’
  • ‘What about…?’

We then practiced some of what we learned above, in the form of a game. We formed two teams and each member from one team had to approach one member from the other team with a request. The other team had to do its best to say no while incorporating the concepts we just learned. This game sparked a lot of negotiating and interaction between the two teams.

As we hit the bottom of the final hour, Harrison covered the other two topics of interest to the team: how to deliver bad news while maintaining credibility, and conducting productive meetings

Delivering Bad News

Every one of us has had to deliver some sort of bad news. In this portion of the session, Harrison shared with us the eight tips by which this can be achieved with minimal guilt and confusion:

  • Don’t procrastinate.
  • The only time to deliver bad news is now. Bad news is better than no news, and bad news gets worse as more time passes.
  • Get to your point. Don’t preface the bad news with softeners, apologies or excuses.
  • Show concern through your style. Make direct eye contact. Does your voice convey remorse? Empathy, compassion, sincerity (and sometimes contrition) are good.
  • State all the facts without minimizing. Don’t keep talking and talking.
  • Invite questions and answer completely. Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ Better still, if you don’t know, vow to find out, do so and report back.
  • Be specific and constructive. Suggest options or solutions.
  • If the situation is ongoing, keep people informed with prompt, regular updates, even when there’s nothing new to report. Keep in communication. Don’t hide out.

A couple of examples of mock scenarios that were played out to illustrate this concept were:

Scenario 1:

Bad News: We didn't plan accordingly and now we have no money left in the budget.

Delivery strategy/format: Express remorse through your style. Reframe to emphasize what you did accomplish or present a plan to keep the project alive. Strive to be upbeat, supportive and resourceful.

Scenario 2:

Bad News: We are not ready for our ISO certification audit next week. What do we do?

Delivery strategy/format: What options exist? Explore them, discuss them and then formulate plan of action. Work together toward an agreed-upon solution. Map out strategy and save the day.

Conducting Productive Meetings

We started this last topic by first discussing the basics of any meeting, which include but are not limited to, posting the objectives for the meeting, using an agenda, assigning names to each entry, following up in subsequent meetings about the past action items, and generating reports or meeting minutes after every meeting. We also briefly touched upon different cultural styles and how each one has similarities and differences with the other while meeting for business.

An interesting aspect of this topic we discussed was how to keep the meetings moving despite the presence of “meeting monsters” like the “tangent talker,” who seems to be out of sync with the rest of the group, the “joker,” who undermines the seriousness of meetings, the “devil’s advocate,” who likes to stir things up, and the “bots,” who prefer machine interaction via phone or computers to human interaction. Some phrases like ‘let’s table this,’ ‘let’s call for the vote,’ ‘are we here to decide or discuss?’ and ‘hearing no objections,’ should keep distractions at bay and help move meetings forward.

The informational and fun-filled evening concluded with the RAPS San Francisco Chapter team members better equipped with tools for more effective interpersonal communications. We all look forward to implementing these invaluable skills throughout the year in 2016.

In conclusion, two of the main take home messages are ‘you have the right to think about any request that affects your time, money or energy,’ and communicate powerfully by artfully using yes, no and their numerous combinations to help ensure everyone comes out a winner.

Shilpa Mydur is a regulatory affairs consultant for mobile and digital health, and the communications chair for the RAPS San Francisco Chapter


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