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The power of No

A Harvard professor argues that the secret to a better Boston -- and a better nation -- is to learn the creative power of rejection

Boston has the reputation of a civic naysayer, with a culture so cranky that good ideas get rejected as a perverse ritual. The political graveyard is filled with ideas that seemed so good when announced, but then suffered nasty deaths. Remember the grand plans for reviving City Hall Plaza? The new Back Bay-style neighborhood on the South Boston waterfront? The Cape Cod wind farm? One 2004 report by the CitiStates Group called the region "fractious, exclusionary, and lacking the collaborative gene."

But in a new book, Harvard Law professor William Ury shows that Boston needs to learn, of all things, to say "no." In "The Power of a Positive No," which Ury calls a "prequel" to his classic "Getting to Yes," he says that rejecting ideas is not such a bad thing. The problem is that Bostonians, and many people, do not always say "no" in a constructive way.

He calls for a new kind of "no" that is not a shrill message of rejection. Instead, "no" should be built on the foundation of strong and positive values, and be the beginning of a conversation, not its end. This "positive no" holds the possibility of changing politics, opening new possibilities. But, he argues, it could also transform the lives of individuals, businesses, teams, and communities.

"No may be the most important word in our vocabulary, but it is the most difficult to say well," Ury writes. "At the heart of the difficulty in saying No is the tension between exercising your power and tending to your relationship."

Ury argues that people avoid uttering the two-letter word because they confuse it with total rejection. We have to deal with people even when we disagree, and we don't want to say something that might hurt future interactions. We also live in a manic age, full of distractions and demands that make it easier to just say "yes." As a result, we have become a nation of accommodators and avoiders.

Ury outlines a three-stage process of constructive dialogue. In the first stage, we reach inside to find our deepest values -- what Ury calls the "Yes!" statement. Being clear on those values makes it easier to move to the next step: saying "no" to things that betray those values. Finally, both sides can suggest common ground, a stage Ury calls "Yes?"

The Yes!/No/Yes? process mirrors the structure of storytelling, from Athens to Hollywood. In Act 1, the hero develops and affirms his deepest values. In Act 2, he confronts a great foe that requires him to fight back. In Act 3, the great struggle opens new possibilities for all concerned.

Massachusetts has become the capital of negotiation studies. Ury's Global Negotiation Project is based at Harvard. Two Red Line stops away, at MIT, Lawrence Susskind's Consensus Building Institute has trained hundreds of people. And don't forget the Albert Einstein Institution, the leading source of information about nonviolence as a form of political action, which Gene Sharp now runs in his East Boston rowhouse.

But smart negotiation has not played enough of a role in Massachusetts politics. According to Ury, the problem might not be that we have a hard time getting to "yes," but that we don't know how to get to "no" first. So we go along with undesirable ideas, like the Big Dig (along with its multibillion-dollar "mitigation" projects) and the convention center in South Boston. Or we avoid taking up good ideas, like the expansion of charter schools or the creation of business improvement districts, because of the shrillness of opponents. The result is an undercurrent of frustration, which occasionally explodes in anger.

Neighborhoods regularly say "no" to even benign projects -- housing, parks, schools, new commercial development -- that would alter their neighborhood in any way. The "no" of NIMBY ("not in my backyard") can poison community life for years.

I know a nonprofit developer who struggled for years to build affordable housing on an open lot in the Roslindale section of Boston. Neighbors repeatedly rejected the idea in community meetings and zoning board hearings. The developer's response was to call the neighbors racist and to vow to fight for the housing until he won.

Ury would instead get the developers and neighbors in a room for a long conversation about what the community needed and what it feared. Ury would try to learn everyone's deepest desires and fears (their "Yes!") and then tell them how they can say "no" in such a way as to open the discussion to new possibilities.

"A positive 'no' respects rather than rejects, even when you're saying 'no' to someone you don't like," Ury told me. "The first time I taught this course at Harvard Law School, we were in the midst of the war, and the students said, 'What about Saddam Hussein? Does he deserve respect?' and I said 'yes."'

The most important part of a good "no" might be having a Plan B: An alternate plan to use when the other side won't accept your answer. More than any other part of a negotiation, having a Plan B can force a stubborn opponent to respond.

Suppose then-Governor Mitt Romney had listened to his budget advisers on the plan to rebuild the Greenbush commuter line to the South Shore. The administration had lots of good reasons to kill the $500 million project, adopted as part of the "mitigation" agreement to get the backing of the Conservation Law Foundation for the Big Dig in the waning days of the Dukakis administration.

But he didn't have a Plan B. Different transit investments, perhaps? Greater attention to strengthening old urban centers? Modern highway management systems? Hard to say. The state, in fact, has not had a comprehensive transportation strategy for more than a generation.

Contrast that situation with the politics of "no" on highway construction back in the early 1970s.

At the time, residents of Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge were agreed on a powerful "Yes!" -- the devotion to maintaining the character of their neighborhoods. So they shouted "no" to Governor Frank Sargent's plans to build an extension of Interstate 95 and an inner-belt highway, which cut through densely populated areas. Sargent then hired an MIT political scientist named Alan Altshuler to develop a comprehensive transportation plan for the Boston area. The resulting blueprint became the "Yes?" that shaped transportation and planning for a generation, leading to improvements in transit (like the new Orange Line) and urban design (the Southwest Corridor park).

One could argue that Altshuler's 18-month planning process did more to revive Boston than any other single event. But it all started with a resounding "no."

Charles Euchner, a New Haven writer, was the executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University from 2000 to 2004. This article is adapted from a version that will appear in CommonWealth magazine's spring issue, which will be released later this week and be available at