Friday, December 14, 2012

The Power of "No"

Lots of people say “no” all the time.  You hear it everyday.  It’s one of the first words you learn as a child.  It’s a simple two letter word that we all take for granted, and don’t give much thought to.  However if you take a step back for a moment and think about it, you’ll realize the strength and power of that word, if and when used properly.

It’s one thing to say “no”, but it’s an entirely different thing to mean it.  To stand behind it.  To be willing to fight for it.  If used properly, it is actually a positive, not a negative, and becomes an invaluable tool for success in both your career and personal life. 

In order to be able to use the word “no” to your benefit, there is one thing that you absolutely MUST have, and that is knowledge.  To say “yes” is to go with the flow, to follow the herd.  Of course there are many reasonable opportunities to say “yes” on a daily basis, I’m not suggesting you delete that word from your vocabulary, but think about what the words mean.  “Yes” is a much easier thing to say than “no”.  If you’re going to use the word “no”, you had better be prepared to defend and explain why you feel that way.  You can’t simply make a hit-and-run statement of objection, take off, and expect to be taken seriously.  You’re either committed, or your not.  Stand behind your words, or don’t say them in the first place.

Elementary and high school is great for providing a basic education, university is great for allowing time for socialization and maturing, and by the time I finished my post-graduate studies after university, I was graduating with high honours.  That’s all fine and dandy, however, what all those years in school don’t teach you is what the “real world” is like once you’re out there on your own.  Diplomas of course have a purpose, and certainly look great on the wall, but they don’t prepare you for the “real world”.  Diplomas get your foot in the door, where you go from there is up to you.  There’s only one way to learn the “real world”, and that’s through experience.  I had a great looking resume by the time I finished with school, and I thought I was fully prepared, but the fact was, I didn’t know anything.  People who don’t know better have no option but to trust that the person standing across from them knows something they don’t, so they say “yes”, and quietly continue on with their business, trying not to draw attention upon themselves.

I didn’t realize this at the time, but early on in my career in the building and development industry, I said “yes” an awful lot.  If someone at City Hall said I needed to provide something in order to obtain a Building Permit, I said “yes”, and got them what they asked for.  If an engineering consultant said we needed to design a residential subdivision in a certain way, I said “yes”, and that’s the way we designed it.  The problem with that however is that by me saying “yes”, it usually meant more time and money on my side of the table was being spent.  Looking back at it, the reason is obvious.  I was young, green, and didn’t know what I was doing! 

I’ve been in this industry for over 16 years now, and by no means am I suggesting I know everything, because I don’t.  Not even close.  But I know that, and knowing that is important.  Through the course of these past 16 years, I’ve gained experience.  I’ve gained knowledge of the Planning Act, Official Plans, Zoning By-Laws, Provincial Legislation, legal agreements, and Building Codes to name a few.  More importantly, I’ve gained knowledge of not only the words within those documents, but what those words actually mean, and how they translate to the “real world”.  Words are something you learn in school.  Words are simple.  The true meaning of words however is something you don’t learn until you’ve experienced them.

Only once you have this knowledge behind you can you legitimately step up and tell somebody “no, you’re wrong, and here’s why”. I now know whether the information City Hall is asking for is something that is actually required, or whether they’re trying to take advantage of a situation, or whether the person asking for it doesn’t even know themselves what the actual requirements are.  Maybe it shouldn’t, but it amazes me that the people put in charge of administering Provincial and Municipal policies, don’t always know what they’re talking about.  They assume they know more about these types of things than the general public, and so does the general public, so City Hall is used to hearing “yes”.  City Hall usually gets what they ask for.  As the saying goes, “You can’t fight City Hall”.  I didn’t know this 16 years ago, but actually, you can.  They are not used to hearing the word “no”.  It catches them completely off guard, and they are not comfortable having to take off their blinders and take a second look at what the policies actually say.  It’s not easy to argue with people who are set in their ways, but it can be done.  Now that my eyes are open to this, it’s a whole new world.

I’ve been in ongoing negotiation meetings over the past two years battling with senior legal and planning staff at two of our local municipalities, and through these negotiations have been successful in convincing them to essentially re-write portions of their Official Plans and Zoning By-Laws to put in place wording that reflects the “real world” interpretation and implementation of those words.  When I submit an application for a new residential subdivision, I don’t cater to what City Hall wants, I give equal or greater consideration to what I want.  I’m afterall the one paying for everything (well, I should say the company I work for is paying for everything), shouldn’t I therefore get a say in this?  When I show up at meetings, and stand up in front of a team of municipal lawyers, engineers, and planners who have been doing things a certain way for years, and tell them that “no, you are wrong”, I damn well better have a good explanation why I feel that way if I want to retain any shred of credibility.  Nowadays, I win more than I lose, and it’s a great feeling.  The fear of confrontation long gone, it’s empowering to know that I have a voice, and whether people agree or disagree, at least they’re listening, and that’s a good start.     

Whether in your professional life or personal life, the moment you say “no”, whether you like it or not, you’ve stuck your neck out.  It is the only way to achieve greater success, and is absolutely necessary, but there is no denying that you are exposing yourself.  You are no longer part of the faceless herd, and sometimes must take positions that are not necessarily popular with others.  But if you have the knowledge and self-confidence to stand behind your position with conviction, and the willingness to fight for what you believe, you’ll do just fine.  I couldn’t do that 16 years ago.  I can do that now.  I can now say “no”.  

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