April 9, 2021

The Affirmative Use of Not

Welcome to the 11th BLOG in my LeaderLike You! series. Each month I endeavor to share a leaderlike idea or a story from a great leader somewhere in the world! Connecting with you monthly, and bringing the leaderlike approach into your places of work or home. This month’s blog brings a suggestion for slightly tweaking the way you ask questions, for you to get a clear response every time – whether that be from your boss, your team, or your children! 

Setting the scene:

When I ask leaders and teams, raise your hand if you in this room would like quicker more effective hard-hitting meetings with clear outcomes clear action plans and a clear understanding of who’s on board and who’s not on board, I consistently receive a resounding yes. That’s good news. It means we can improve the quality of our meetings.

One of the things that I find that plagues leaders meeting goers and humans of all levels is when we ask people questions sometimes their response is more skewed towards what they think we want to hear rather than what they actually want to say.

A universal truth I’ve come to know: Most people just say yes to end the dialogue and move on, with no true acceptance. 

For me Acceptance is saying yes and doing yes — with actionable follow through.

For example, what I find holds teams back is true dialogue, whether people agree with approaches or not. 

From my perspective, one of the reasons this happens is meetings tend to trudge along and at a certain point in time when the leader thinks the team has discussed enough, the leader then looks at the team wanting to recap, end the discussion and says “OK, so we all agree that we need to increase sales by 5% in Q2.” 

And the team says, “yeah ok sure.” 

When I am present (online or offline) I notice what I call the “North-South” movement 1-2-3 and people kind of just nod their head indicating “Yep” and then the leader says, “so it is 5% more sales in Q2.” 

After the meeting, I notice people push back 1:1, begin to re-negotiate, take issue, demonstrate why they cannot raise the 5% in their sales territories. What it clearly points to is people falling into the trap of saying what they think the leader wants to hear versus real dialogue.

Another occasion, I was with a team of 10 that needed to do additional “voice of customer interviews” and was facing a deadline.  

The team leader announced, “Ok looks like we have 10 more interviews to do so everybody here in the room can take one in depth interview and do a deep dive, that way we split up the 10 interviews evenly.” 

With the holiday next Wednesday (the office was closed that day) the leader said, “is everyone ok to turn in their findings Tuesday by 5pm?” 

I noticed that everybody agreed verbally, I saw heads nodding and reassuring “sure no problem” and the telltale north, south, 123, up-down movement. 

Lo and behold on Tuesday night, only 3 people turned in their interview — meaning the leader had to make 7 follow up phone calls! “Hey Steve it’s Mike, I notice I didn’t get your response to the in-depth interview.” He then had to negotiate.

There is a better way! What I encourage people to do in running processes, projects, teams meetings is not to ask in the positive, rather realize how beneficial it can be to sometimes ask in the negative. 

That would sound like is the following:

“OK so we have now discussed increasing sales and for Q2 budget. So here comes the magical question, is there anybody in the room who does not agree to raising sales 5% in Q2?” 

At that point, pause – and then look around the room. 

While most people will think what you said is “does everybody agree we raise sales 5%” what you really said, “is there anybody here in the room who does not agree to raise sales 5%?” 

Let’s talk positive intent (and you may want to see my other past podcast on that) you don’t say this because want to squash discussion or stifle people. This is the affirmative use of negative speech. 

Why live in a fake reality of yes when it is really no? It’s more effective to allow people who want to disagree, to debate and discuss the approach, and nothing opens it up more for them than “not”.

It wakes up the mismatch in people and some people will say “hey wait a second, in my sales territory I don’t think I’m going to eke out more than 2% so I’m not really OK to increase sales 5% category.” 

Using NOT allows them to hold the necessary dialogue.

I would rather people have discussion and know before they leave and leave the room who’s on board, who’s not.

After you negotiate with the woman running the salesforce for the team that can only do a 2% sales increase, I would look at my team and recap the decisions.

“alright except for Martha’s territory where we’re increasing sales 2%, is there anybody else who does not agree that we are increasing sales 5% in Q2?” 


Then I would say “OK, we have now agreed increase sales 5% in Q2” 

or in the case of the interviews, I would say alright we have now decided that we are going to do 10 more interviews and turn those in Tuesday night at 5:00 o’clock before the day off on Wednesday for the national holiday. Is there anybody in this room who does not agree that they’re able to turn in the interviews Tuesday night?

Maybe somebody raises their hand and says “well I’m actually going to be on holiday all week I am leaving on Sunday and I’ll be back Friday so yea Tuesday is not possible…” 

Better know it now than later and chase after them. You now have to negotiate with them so well can I have it on Sunday. 

The important thing is to not always give blanket positive statements when facilitating groups, projects, and processes.

Yesterday I was working with a group online all-in different locations, I had never worked with them and it was time for the afternoon break. Wanting to lock in my need for punctuality I said:

“We are now going to take a 15-minute break. Is there anyone who cannot be back in 15 minutes? We have a lot to do and punctuality is important.” Everyone said yes perfect. Guess what, they were all back on time!

This approach also applies at home – 

let’s say the following to your kids “OK you guys we want to go skiing this weekend? Great! your mom’s telling me our bedrooms are all messy, let’s agree we all clean our bedrooms (including me) before we go?” 

My kids say, “sure Dad, no problem” and go off and probably not even clean their rooms. 

A parenting tip would be to say “everybody wants to go skiing on Saturday and mom wants us to clean our rooms ’cause she says they’re messy! Does anybody not understand that if we don’t clean our rooms we can’t go skiing? 

They all look at you and go “Ok, we understand!”

You then end up by saying “so everybody agrees with cleaning our rooms before we go skiing on Sunday and putting our dirty clothes in the basket? If not, no skiing.”

My suggestion is to ask in the negative.

I call this the affirmative use of not.

I look forward to hearing your questions comments and discoveries on how you can use this idea as it applies at home, this applies everywhere! Don’t just ask questions that allow people to say what they think you want to hear, ask questions that allow true dialogue! 

I look forward to your questions comments and discoveries, go off and be leaderlike, successful by design not by chance, with conscious responses instead of unconscious reactions, and I hope you have better meetings.

Stay at peace with yourself, at peace with others and be leaderlike.
Look forward to bringing you a story next month,