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Why saying "no" is the most positive thing you can do

After the ice bucket challenge, the nomination game is really starting to take off. Having escaped the cold shower, I find myself nominated to provide a list of ten books which have had a deep impact on me. This is a really good question: what is impact? The classics I read in high school (Balzac, Rimbaud, Kerouac); my favourite fiction work – Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (as close to perfection as any mortal writer can get) – or the philosophy works which have shaped my thinking: Leibniz, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Camus, Foucault, Serres?

These books have impacted my life in terms of beauty, love and thinking – they have made me into who I am. And yet there is one unlikely candidate which has impacted me more than all these classics. William Ury is a key figure in negotiation theory and the author of Getting to Yes. Confronted by a personal situation – a daughter born with a handicap, and far too many demands on his time – he transmuted his belief in a redeeming Yes into a theory of a positive No.

A positive No is a Yes in disguise: it is a Yes to what you believe in, to what you stand for, to what you want your life to be. It is Yes to the choices you make as a fallible human being. It's the Yes that comes from your heart, from your gut, from your soul. At the same time, it is a No to professional demands on your time, to the exigencies of doctors with their own agendas, to the pressures of extended family, to decorum. What you say - the word you use - is No. What you mean is Yes: yes to the things that matter to you, Yes to those you love, Yes to the life you want to live. This is the most affirmative, joyous way to live.

The Power of a Positive No by William Ury is the key book that I nominate in this wondrous challenge. It's beautifully written – clear, sincere, to the point. It's a gift from a man who applied his professional knowledge to an intimate situation. Most of all, it is a blueprint and a wake-up call to all of us who find ourselves saying Yes far too often, for fear of being found insensitive, for fear of being rejected. We need to learn a deep wisdom: affirm who you are – by saying No.

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