Win-Win Interactions

Leadership Excellence

November 10, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

A FEW YEARS AGO A CEO hired me to coach his COO, a talented man who was also stubborn and opinionated. The first time I met with him to go through his direct reports’ feedback, his reaction was, ‘But Marshall, I don’t do that.’

‘That one is free,’ I said. ‘Next time I hear ‘no,’ ‘but,’ or ‘however,’ it will cost you $20.’

‘But,’ he replied, ‘that’s not . . .’

‘That’s $20!’

‘No, I don’t . . .’ he refuted.

‘That’s $40!’ Within one hour, he was out $420. It took another two hours before he finally understood and said, ‘Thank you.’ When you start a sentence with ‘no,’


‘however,’ or any variation, no matter how friendly your tone or how many cute mollifying phrases you throw in to acknowledge the other person’s feelings, the message to the other person is: You are wrong. It’s not, ‘I have a different opinion.’ It’s not, ‘I disagree with you.’ It’s bluntly and unequivocally, ‘What you’re saying is wrong, and what I’m saying is right.’ Nothing productive can happen after that. The general response from the other person is to dispute your position and push back. From there, the conversation dissolves into a pointless war.

You’re no longer communicating; you’re both trying to win.

Keep a Scorecard

There aren’t many cheap, surefire, guaranteed accurate peeks into the competitive makeup of your colleagues or friends, but try this one. For one week monitor your coworkers’ use of ‘no,’ ‘but,’ and ‘however’; keep a scorecard of how many times each individual uses these words to start a sentence.

If you drill a little deeper, patterns will emerge. You’ll see how people inflict these words on others to gain or consolidate power. You’ll also see how intensely people resent it, consciously or not, and how it stifles rather than opens up discussion.

Without even thinking, I keep count of my clients’ usage of these words. It’s such an important indicator that I do it on autopilot. I’ll often interrupt a client in an initial meeting to say, ‘We’ve been talking for 40 minutes. Do you realize that in that time you have started 17 responses with either no, but or however?’ The client is never aware of it. That’s the moment a serious talk about changing behavior begins.

If this is a challenge for you, you can do this for yourself just as easily as I do it for my clients. Stop trying to defend your position and start monitoring how many times you begin remarks with ‘no,’ ‘but,’ or ‘however.’ Pay extraclose attention to those moments when you use these words in sentences whose ostensible purpose is agreement with the other party. For example, ‘That’s true, however . . .’ (Meaning: you don’t think it’s true at all.) Or the opener, ‘Yes, but . . .’ (Meaning: prepare to be contradicted.) As in almost any one of my exercises designed to stop annoying behavior, it’s easy to monetize the solution. Do what I did with the COO. Ask a friend or colleague to charge you money every time you say ‘no,’

‘but,’ or ‘however.’ Once you appreciate how guilty you have been, maybe then you will begin to change your ways. Remember the COO’s $420 meeting? That’s an example of how pervasive the urge to be right can be.

‘No,’ ‘but,’ and ‘however’ creep into your conversations even when the discussion is trivial, even when you should be cultivating win/win interactions . . . and even when it costs you significant money. PE

Marshall Goldsmith helps successful leaders achieve positive change in behavior: for themselves, their people and teams. He is author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Visit

ACTION: Purge the urge to be right.