Saying “No” across Power Differences

by Miki Kashtan

As challenging as saying “no” is to anyone in our lives, a topic I addressed a few weeks ago, it becomes exponentially more difficult when there is a power difference involved. The reason for it is that, by virtue of having power, the other person can deliver unpleasant consequences if we say “no.” A parent may do anything from frowning, removing privileges, sending a child to their room or grounding them, all the way to hitting the child or shaming them in significant ways. A boss may reprimand, put a note in an employee’s file, overlook the person when a promotion is coming up, all the way to firing the person. These consequences are far from trivial.

This is precisely the reason why people in power rarely hear a “no” unless they set up explicit structures of support for people to say “no” to them. The cost of having power, when not attended to, means that people in power don’t receive all the information they need to make decisions, because people are afraid to tell them the truth; it means they don’t have access to the full wisdom of the people who work with them, because people hold back; it also means operating in an environment of little trust. All of these can sometimes lead to compromised performance.

A Note to Managers

What could someone in a position of power do, then, to counter these powerful tendencies? It is not enough to invite people to provide their input. Most often, people will still not offer their input, and definitely will not dissent from an opinion given by their manager, unless the manager consistently provides an environment which encourages this level of trust. Once people feel free to say no, to provide input, and to step into partnership with the manager in support of the shared purpose of the team, they are likely to give their all.

Because people are afraid to say “no,” this means verbally appreciating any “no” that does get said, even when the “no” is uncomfortable. I know, for myself, I feel relieved and energized when the people whose work it is to support me say “no.” It gives me confidence in the quality of the relationship, and makes it easier for me to trust the wholeheartedness of a “yes” when I hear it. Sometimes, especially if you are trying to change long established habits, creating an environment of trust means engaging with people when you have any doubt about whether a “yes” is an expression of true willingness or is given out of any sense of lack of choice. Ultimately, the only way that people will persist in offering their honest “no” is if they trust there won’t be negative repercussions. As a manager, there is a lot you can do to commit to that.

Managers can also deliberately solicit input before making decisions, and feedback about the decisions. Every step of the way, the power difference operates as a disincentive to offer comprehensive input before and honest feedback after a decision. So few people trust that their experience, needs, perspective, or opinions matter, that a lot of cushioning may be needed to provide a bridge into the kind of trust that would enrich every work team and nonetheless rarely exists. Even if someone comes up with an idea that you don’t like, appreciate the very fact that they offered it, the more so the more it is different from your own. Nurturing dissent is how you can arrive at even better ideas. However challenging it may be, engage with the idea, understand where it’s coming from, and explore its merits. I doubt you will ever regret doing that. The person who comes to you will settle into more trust. Then, when you explain your decision, you can turn the conversation into a learning experience. More often than not, both of you will be learning something through such exchanges, and the quality of team effort will be enhanced each time.

At a recent management training that I conducted, someone raised a crucial question at this point: What if someone is saying “no” more often or more easily than is workable for the manager? The answer is one of balance. Ideally, someone is in a certain position because they are, overall, willing to do what that job entails and supportive of the vision and management style of the person in power. Within that overall alignment, their “no” is a gift. If the ratio is out of balance, perhaps the person is not in the right position. You can engage with the person to find out what is going on. The outcome of such a conversation, if done in the spirit of collaboration and exploration, is either that you arrive together at the conclusion that it’s not the right job, or that you learn something unexpected about what’s going on that’s resulting in so many instances of “no” and attend to those issues. Either way, the overall functioning of your team is enhanced.

Saying “No” to a Manager

Unfortunately for most of us, the number of managers who are aware of the precious gift that a “no” can be is small. What this means, essentially, is that if we want to offer the gift of an authentic, open-hearted “no” to a manager, it’s likely to take more skill and intention to present it in such a way that the manager can receive it as a gift. No small task, and yet entirely doable.

What makes “no” challenging, with or without power differences, is that for the person hearing the “no” it almost always reads as a “no” to them rather than a “no” to what they want. In the context of a workplace, “no” to a boss is particularly charged precisely because of the very dynamics of power that also make it so hard to say. How do we get around it?

Essentially, the “trick” is to continue to maintain the intention of offering support to the boss even while we are saying “no” to the particular thing they ask of us – agreement to a direction, a task to fulfill, our presence for a meeting, or anything else. Since the likelihood of this intention being seen while we say “no” is so low, we can increase this chance by being explicit in conveying the intention. For example, by saying: “I am very willing to do what you want me to do. I want, first, to talk with you about my concerns.” When we say it like this, the manager knows that the specific support they are asking for is available, which contributes to release of tension, and therefore creates more room for curiosity to hear what the concerns are. In one example I saw recently, an executive who works at an organization I work with asked a management trainee to coordinate all the scheduling for me instead of the administrative support person who’s been doing it so far. Initially, I saw the woman crumble a little and then just say “yes,” and I knew right away that this didn’t make sense to her and yet she wasn’t going to say anything about it.

I talked with the two of them at some length and supported the woman in doing what I just recommended above. She both affirmed her willingness, and shared with the executive the concerns she had about taking on this task. Perhaps to her surprise, her concerns made complete and total sense to the executive. In fact, it was quite easy for him to hear once she had reiterated how willing she is to do what he is asking. This attitude cannot be faked, and it cannot be sustained over time unless the commitment is real and serious. Once we successfully embrace this attitude of service, we can then offer the concerns as an expression of our wisdom.

This is what the woman in question did. She also had an alternative to offer, which was for her to coordinate the meetings of a certain group that she was part of, and for the administrative person to continue to coordinate all the rest of the scheduling. When approaching someone in power, being able to offer an alternative is critical. One of the quintessential tasks of management is to solve problems and make decisions. Offering an alternative means there’s one fewer problems to solve. Offering an alternative that is rooted in understanding what’s truly important to the manager, the underlying needs that lead to the request, is not always easy to intuit. We may need to engage in some dialogue to reach sufficient understanding to come up with an alternative. My own experience is that when we are able to do that, both of us have more choice and the sense of collaboration increases even in moments when we say “no.”

Story: The Complexity of Maintaining Power and Choice

Bernice (my name for her) decided to find her way to transforming an experience of repeated resentment in her workplace.

She knew that resentment comes from doing something we don’t really want to do, rather than from anything that someone else does. She wanted to respond with full choice to her manager’s request to which she previously had been submitting, having always heard it as a demand. She didn’t want to rebel; she wanted to truly choose how she wanted to respond. She then set out to reclaim her power of choice by working through some reflection questions which shifted her inner experience sufficiently to engage differently with her manager.

Empathy for the Person in Power

There were two key moments for her that created the transformation. The first was after she imagined what might be the experience of her boss and what might be important to her. What she identified was stress, and that her boss likely wanted “ease, efficiency, quality work for the organization, and trust that the quality work will get done.” As she stretched to open her heart to the boss, she wrote: “I am noticing my heart actually opening. I now have a sense of sympathy because I can relate to those needs, as I often have them with respect to our organization, as well. I want to contribute to the success of our organization, and I want collaboration and support in making that collaboration.”

What Bernice accomplished is a monumental task. One of the core dynamics that make workplaces so difficult for so many people is that they forget that managers and bosses, everyone in a position of power, is human too. This is not a conceptual statement; it’s a deep and practical reality with specific content: it means that people with power have the exact same needs that those with less power have. This was why the moment was so profound for Bernice. Once we see that those in power are human, we can often recognize that living so much of the time without being seen as human creates a huge empathy deficit for people in power. In short, as Kit Miller from the Gandhi Institute taught me, empathy doesn’t flow uphill easily. If we can empathize with our bosses, especially as part of learning to say “no” to them, we will become significant resources within the organizations in which we work.

Discovering Choice again

After a few more questions, Bernice was no longer hearing a demand. Then came the second powerful moment for her. In contemplating the effect of saying “no,” she discovered the following: “Actually, I now see that saying “no” is a way to wave my hands and say “Notice me, I matter.” However, saying “no” is unlikely to get my needs met.”

That was when she was finally ready to make a choice about how to respond. What she opted for was to say “no” and simultaneously propose a path forward. She then emailed her boss, and said: “I’d like to put on the agenda for next week’s mtg/call a review of how the preparation of the … report went for all of us, and how we might structure things next time around to improve on quality, create more ease and choice for us in getting things done, and increase efficiency. Please let me know if you are open to this.” Her boss’s response was: “Absolutely.”

… And Losing It again

If only we could carry through our intentions all the way. While the item was put on the agenda, and the boss did initiate a discussion, Bernice didn’t intervene when the conversation turned from what she had hoped for – putting all the needs on the table before selecting strategies – to a more traditional approach in which specific steps were proposed and adopted without relating them to what was articulated by people as what was and wasn’t working; certainly without anyone identifying the underlying needs that Bernice, at least, could guess when people were expressing themselves.

Although Bernice noticed this happening, she didn’t have sufficient inner resilience to make the choices she wanted. As she concluded her story, Bernice said: “This is my personal learning edge, to be able to self-connect in the moment when I am triggered, so I can be more present and open to hearing the needs behind the judgments, evaluations and strategies [that others express]. With respect to growing into leadership, I would like to then find ways to translate for the group what we hear into shared needs, so all of us might feel heard and be more open to working collaboratively.”

In addition to all the specifics that Bernice learned in the process, the biggest lesson for me is that learning how to live an empowered life in which we choose our response and speak authentically and with heart is not a linear process. We learn, and then we lose some of what we know. The point, for me, is to remain on the journey. In this case: returning, again and again, to the simple truth that a disgruntled “yes” is no gift to anyone; that we can support people and be committed to them and still say “no;” and that seeing the humanity of those in power only increases our effectiveness.

Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call: Tuesday June 11, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. This week Miki is away and the call will be led by Jean McElhaney, professional counselor, peace activist, interfaith minister, and frequent commenter on this blog, now resident in Auckland, New Zealand. Note: if you already registered in May, you need to re-register for June. 

2 thoughts on “Saying “No” across Power Differences

  1. Jestew

    Wow! What a powerful topic – I'm surprised that there are no comments yet… I think I've been part of different sides of this discussion on and off with you, Miki, for more than a year and yet it still seems to bring up new pieces for me each time I consider it. When I first started, it helped me recognize that I had zero capacity to say 'No' when it mattered, but especially to

  2. Barb van Kerkhove

    Thank you, Miki and Jas. I, too, am enriched by the vision of this learning being a non-linear process.

    The other day at work, I facilitated a “difficult” discussion re: salary scales, and I am happy to say I was able to move a bit further along in this loopy progression to presence and support of full collaboration. I did this by taking some time to prepare and think about the


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