Skip to main content

Do You Refuse to Hear No?

Do You Refuse to Hear No?

You're discussing a thorny problem with your work team when an off-the-wall idea suddenly comes to you. You enthusiastically explain your brainchild and are met with surprised looks. You keep talking, encountering further silence.

Finally, one of your senior employees says, "I don't know. How does everyone feel about this?" After an awkward pause, someone suggests, "Well, if that's what the boss wants, maybe we can make it work." Caught up in the moment, you push on with your plan, ending the discussion by making assignments. As you exit the tension-filled room, you think, "Getting people to take part in a meeting is like pulling teeth."

The real explanation? Your employees didn't agree with your idea, but they've learned that openly disagreeing with the boss could get them in trouble. So they find safer ways to say no. If they merely hint at their concerns, they can maintain plausible deniability in case power players get upset: "No, I wasn't disagreeing; I just wondered if others had a concern."

Having made similar hints to our own bosses, you'd think we would be highly skilled at picking up these subtle signs or cues from our subordinates. But when the stakes are high and emotions kick in, our brains shut down higher-level cognitive processing. We become blind. We push our thoughts onto others and eventually implement poorly evaluated ideas. This is why smart people do dumb things -- because people in authority hear yes when others hint no.

Four Ways to Notice and Navigate No

What can you do to avoid proliferation of your bogus ideas? Here are four strategies to help you better hear and manage no:

  • Key into Signs of Disagreement: When people worry about the cost of disagreeing, they often pause while choosing their words. These pauses speak volumes. If you're in a position of power, translate hesitant pauses to a surefire no. Sometimes people will actually start to stutter or stammer. This typically means, "Uh oh, how do I say no without getting in trouble?"

    When people finally do speak up, they often hint that others may have problems with the idea. Translation: "I have a problem with this idea." They also may resort to sugarcoating their concerns. "It's not a big deal, but maybe, and I'm not saying I know this for sure..." Translation: "This is a big deal." Realize that responses littered with "maybe" and "perhaps" suggest people are frightened and holding back.

  • Know Your Audience: Start the discussion about your latest pet project with your audience in mind -- not your argument. Are you in authority? Have these people typically been reluctant to disagree? Have they suffered under the reign of previous tyrants? These are all signs you must pay close attention to subtle forms of no.

  • Turn Off the Adrenaline: If you've become upset at hearing or sensing no, it's because you've told yourself an ugly story: Others are being disrespectful or want to cause you problems. Feeding off these stories, you prepare to fight or take flight and become blinded by the adrenaline your body produces.

    Shut down this response by telling yourself a different story. Perhaps people are just trying to do what's right. Open your eyes and mind to healthier conclusions.

  • Solicit No: Make your meeting or office a safe place for disagreement by openly asking for differing opinions. Here are some ways you can solicit the feedback: "I've shared my view, but now I'd like to hear different views," "Help me out here; what are the holes in my logic?" or "Let's spend a minute or two critiquing this plan."

    Play devil's advocate. Thank people for disagreeing.

Finally, don't worry about becoming weak. Once you've heard no, you don't have to immediately back off or tactfully agree. However, having spotted others' concerns, you're now in a position to discuss both sides of the issue. And therein lies the source of your future success.

[Kerry Patterson is author of the New York Times best-sellers Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations, as well as an acclaimed keynote speaker and consultant. He is also the chief development officer of VitalSmarts, a consulting firm specializing in organizational performance and leadership training. Patterson has designed and implemented major corporate change initiatives for the past 25 years.]

Back to top