No is the first answer

Posted on June 26, 2010


“Yes” is good. It means we get what we want. It means that things are going our way. It means “smooth” and “coordinated” and “successful” and “happy.” Except that it doesn’t.

In corporate negotiation, the only real answer is “no.” Company A wants to sign a contract with Company B for services. They have a long and unified history of working together, and they expect no snags in the deal. How do they write the contract? What do you put in a contract? Exactly what you agree to do for one another? Do you spell it all out? Do you imagine every node at which you will interact and establish metrics to determine performance?

How about your marriage? You have a contract. Do you spell out exactly what you will do for one another? In sickness and in health, yada yada yada, long list of reasonable activities?


The only real definition of the contract is its edges. Where is the limit to what you’re agreeing to do? At what point does one party overstep the expectation and require renegotiation? This sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Are you uncomfortable? Most people are uncomfortable at the edges.

Company A needs to know when Company B will not provide its services. Those conditions, spelled out, determine the boundary of that contract. They are vital pieces of information. Everything within that boundary is open for further negotiation, but everything outside of that boundary requires a new contract. This is what makes it possible for Company A and Company B to do business with one another.

Are they going to spell out expectations within those boundaries? Absolutely. Are they going to specify goals and objectives and create a framework for their future work, yet unimagined? If they’re smart. Can they begin that negotiation before they have those boundaries? Unfortunately, many try.

The carryovers are direct. Most of us grow up learning to be agreeable, to be polite, and to not make waves. We are trained to give “yes” answers, and many times, trained to deny our boundaries. A child talks back. That’s not very “nice,” because nice people always say yes. We communicate that that child cannot specify a boundary, and eventually, that she does not exist as a person and has no boundary. How does a child know when it is okay to say, “no, you cannot do that to me, because I am an entity separate from you”? Do we give counsel about how to set those limits, since she’s only 2? Of course. But she has to have some latitude to choose some boundaries sometimes.

Otherwise, that child grows into an adult who cannot say no, because everything good and right about character is based on saying “yes.” “No” is a bad word, a denial of service to others, selfishness ingrained. This person has no boundary, because anyone, anywhere, can walk up to her and demand anything of her, and she must say “yes.”

“No” is the answer of freedom. It is the limit of our obligation to others, but paradoxically the area in which we act with complete integrity with one another. Even God established limits for us. He said, “these are the things you must NOT do if you are to remain in contract with me. These are the boundaries of your activities, if you wish to be called mine. As long as you stay within these, you may work and act and make choices, and I’m okay with that. Outside of these lines, you lose my assistance.”

We have a choice to go outside those edges, and that’s vital for it to have any meaning to be inside them. And does he give counsel about ways that we can move those boundaries, sharing with us goals and objectives and a framework of defined excellence? You bet. It is the hollowest of contracts if it is only the edges.

Inside of those lines, we maintain a relationship with God, qualify for his assistance, and act with integrity to require even more of ourselves, in relation to him and to each other. He does not require more, but we are free to give more. Just as Company A does not require Company B to double check the integrity of data processes, if Company B does this with an eye toward their agreed objectives, the corporate relationship is strengthened. Company B does nothing to earn a contract renewal, if it does only what is required in the contract. The “no,” the limit of the contract, is what frees Company B to excel (to create any meaningful “yes.”)

There is no way for us to excel, to be extraordinary, until we accurately define the limits of what is expected of us. If everything is expected of us, we will never even be adequate. This is very different from saying that everything is possible for us.

We need to get more comfortable at the edges. We need to be able to say “no” when we’re truly at those edges, and we need to give others the freedom to say “no” when they’re at their edges. Then we can work on all the thousand ways we creatively make “yes” of our own free will and choice. Then “smooth” and “coordinated” and “successful” and “happy” will really mean something.

If the cat never says “no” the dog is not wrong to chew on his ear. Somebody, tell the cat.

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