How to Deal With Those ‘No’ People

Just say no: Every Capitol Hill office has a "no" person. How do you get them to yes? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Just say no: Every Capitol Hill office has a "no" person. How do you get them to yes? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 15, 2015 at 5:00am

“Whatever it is, I’m against it” — Groucho Marx, “Horse Feathers” They’re everywhere — the ones denying vacation days, nixing reimbursement receipts, hoarding office supplies and ignoring your requests.  

They are the “no” people, those who love to turn down requests whenever possible. They’re goalkeepers who stop everything coming their way, while inflicting mammoth bruises on the competition. If they’re not ruining your day, they’re sticking on a Grinch Santa cap to ruin someone else’s. There’s a “no” person in every office, especially on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress say “yes” to every constituent and press request and then leave it up to the staffers to sort it out. But some “no” people take their jobs more seriously than others. And in offices with blended hierarchical layers, a “no” person can threaten to veto a project or request at any time.  

Many times, the “no” person is correct: There should be a person who keeps things moving along, just as there should be staffers who take constituent meetings instead of the boss, no matter what he or she has been promised. But sometimes, even the best-intentioned staffers see a “no” person as a high hurdle placed in the track. With a tactical approach, here are some ways to lure the “no” person into a more agreeable state.  

Give them something to say “yes” to. Lead your inquiry with some softballs that the “no” person is likely to agree with. “Did you want to review this?” “Did you want me to make 600 staple copies?” “Is this your preference?” “No” people respond well when others respect their territory and demonstrate an understanding of their domain before launching into the real ask.  

Consider the approach. Just like a Sumatran tiger, threats from others are more likely to make a “no” person go on the veto attack. The question should come from you in a carefully selected format: Either in person, over email or via phone, and rarely with an audience present. If you’re sending an email, don’t copy anyone else. Go at their pace; don’t overload requests.  

Give a back-door option: Your “no” person isn’t likely to change his or her mind, but he or she might be able to modify a stance if given an out that does not look weak. Try framing the request as “different” or “modified” and explain why. “I know you said the congressman didn’t have availability for this meeting, but we just changed the time, so perhaps it could work now?”  

When all else fails, be the contrarian . Some “no” people are just disagreeing with you for the sake of it. As a last resort (and to be used sparingly), let them be the ones to disagree with you while green-lighting the request. If you’re not sure how to start, begin with the nerve of it all, then gauge reaction. “Can you believe the nerve of these people with conference calls? I say we just say ‘no’ to everything. A ‘conference call moratorium’ starting now.” Then let them talk you off the edge and into a more reasonable territory.  

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