Saying No Respectfully, Even In The Face Of Disrespect

Do you get a gut-wrenching feeling when you know you need to tell someone no? Part of the difficulty in saying no, according to William Ury, a negotiation specialist, is “the tension between exercising your power and tending to your relationship.” It’s a delicate balance to manage. Learning how to disagree without being disagreeable can take effort but giving respect to others while saying no is something to strive for. To respect simply means to give positive attention to the other party and to treat the other with the dignity with which you would like to be treated. Done properly, maintaining a relationship of mutual respect while saying no greatly enhances your ability to influence the other party. Saying no positively and civilly allows you to move beyond attacking the other party, accommodating their wishes and ignoring your own values and needs or avoiding a hard conversation that might later surface unexpectedly at a time when you are unprepared to discuss it. Conducting your conversation considerately allows you to hold your head high and maintain self-respect without feelings of regret after the exchange of words has concluded. Ury tells us that “respect is the cheapest concession you can give the other. It costs you little and gets you a lot.”

“Remember that in saying no,” Ury cautions, “you are telling the other something they probably do not want to hear.”  Others may be more receptive to understanding your message rather than simply dismissing it, if your message is given with respect. Respect can weaken the power of a negative reaction and enhance the probability of a favorable response from the other party. One of Ury’s suggestions is that the more powerful the no you intend to deliver, the more respect you need to show throughout the interaction.

Hold on a second, you might say. What if the person is acting disrespectfully towards me? Why should I give him respect? “Giving respect to the other may seem like the last thing we feel like doing,” but “when we respect the other, we are giving ourselves the opportunity to look again at someone whom fear and anger may have kept us from seeing fully. We are learning to observe people as they truly are, to listen for their underlying needs, to look for what is really going on inside them.” Pausing to observe and listen and to gain perspective tends to humanize the person you may be at odds with. “To be respected means to be seen and to be heard”, says Ury, “every human being deserves that chance.” 

It’s important to note, however, that “respect does not mean liking the other personally—because you may not. It does not mean doing what the other wants—because you are about to do the opposite. What respect does mean is simply to give value to the other as a human being just as you would like others to give value to you.”

Gestures of common respect take the form of:

  • Paying attention
  • Listening
  • Acknowledgment
  • Recognition

As a point of clarification, “acknowledgment does not mean agreeing with the other. It does not mean making any substantive concessions. It does not mean holding the other in high esteem.” Acknowledgment means treating the other not as a nobody but as a somebody, a fellow human being who exists and has needs and rights like anyone else.” If the other person aggravates you, Ury suggests that you keep showing respect, remembering that “you give respect not because of who they are but rather because of who you are. Stay true to yourself and your values.”

In the moment, giving respect may not feel good to us. That gut-wrenching feeling may still be there while you deliver your no and the feeling might not go away for some time after. Saying no can be a difficult thing to do. While we have little choice about how we feel, we do have control over how we choose to act and react. “When you give respect to the other, don’t think of yourself as doing them a favor,” shares Ury, “Think of it as doing yourself a favor—because in the end it can help get your needs met. Respect makes sense not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is the effective thing to do. Respect the other for your own sake.” Giving and maintaining respect is a win-win for yourself and the other party as well.

William Ury is a negotiation specialist, teacher, author, consultant and mediator. His book, “The Power of a Positive No” is the basis for much of this blog post content.

By Kerry Tay McLean, Ombuds Program Administrator
University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office

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