5 Ways to Deal with the First No

Posted 12.07.2011

A couple of days ago, I had lunch with a friend who’s a senior leader in a well known organization. He’s in charge of the communications function and recently led a team that put together a very successful first time event that got a ton of positive national media attention. We were talking about what he learned from leading that process. While some of the details of our conversation were off the record, he gave his permission to share his biggest lesson on the Next Level Blog.

It all comes down to what do you do with the first no?

Leaders who are trying to do something unprecedented are invariably going to hear the word, no, a lot.  It may not be as direct as that. It might be softened as, “We don’t do things that way,” or “Sorry, that’s impossible.” My friend heard a lot of responses like that as he and his team worked to turn their big event idea into a reality. Looking back on a successful outcome, he realizes that the critical element in making it happen was how they dealt with the first no.

I asked him what his options were for dealing with the first no. Here’s what he had to say:

  • Take It:  Your first option is to just take the no at face value. This might be appropriate in some cases, but if it’s the only response in your repertoire, you’re not going to get much done.
  • Ask Why:  This was my friend’s go-to move when he heard no. He would politely ask why it couldn’t be done. It was often the case that the person saying no would realize there wasn’t any other reason for saying no beyond it hadn’t been done before.
  • Ask What If:  That was the point at which my friend and his team would start asking, “What if…?” What if questions engage the other party in a problem solving dialogue instead of a just say no monologue.
  • Do Your Homework:  My friend and his team made sure they did their homework before they even asked the question. As he told me, “You want to make sure it’s the right person saying no.” Don’t allow things to get hung up at levels where the authority to say no doesn’t really exist.
  • Pick Your Spots: As my friend said, “You have to work to live another day.” In other words, you have to develop a sense of what’s a deal killer and what doesn’t really matter that much. Let the no’s go on things that don’t matter so much.

So, the chances are excellent that you’ve heard no when trying to lead change or do something new. What’s your best advice for dealing with the first no?