The Power of Saying “No”

Early on, Stephen was taught to say “yes.” “Yes” opens doors, seizes opportunities, shows enthusiasm, expands networks, builds careers, makes friends, demonstrates leadership, and more. Stephen has successfully managed his career with “yes.” He’s earned promotions and raises. But now he is in trouble.

We all know that the people who take on work and get things done are always the people asked to take on more work and get more things done. Stephen has too much on his plate to be effective. He’s falling behind on promises made. He’s trying to please too many people. Perhaps worse, increasingly, he’s working on projects that are not central to his organizational responsibilities or strategic priorities.

It’s time for Stephen to start saying “no.”

There are incredibly positive and empowering benefits to saying “no.” Saying “no” will help you get control of your calendar, strengthen your communication and delegation skills, and help you focus your time and energy on high priority work that is truly important. (For more, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Saying No So You Can Say Yes.”)

But how? Saying “no” feels dangerous. It’s negative. It sounds harsh, even rude. It may upset the person asking for something. Will “no” convey a lack of interest? A show of disrespect? “No” needs to be said the right way. Not with impatience or a tone of arrogance; not abruptly or angrily; and not in a dismissive, off-handed manner — but strategically, thoughtfully, and sincerely.

Five Steps to Get to a Constructive “No”

1. Sometimes we are caught by surprise, but if we stop to think about it, often, we can anticipate where the next ask is going to come from. Are senior leaders considering a new project? Might you be invited to join the team? Does your supervisor routinely make a series of requests at the end of every quarter? Does another department regularly ask you to help with their assessments or reports? Is there a colleague who is always asking for help? The more you anticipate these scenarios, the better prepared you will be to thoughtfully say “yes” or “no.”

2. When you are asked, do not make “no” the first word that comes out of your mouth. Avoid instant responses and knee-jerk reactions. As much as possible, give yourself some space to organize your thoughts and work through an intentional response. You may need only five minutes or you may need five days, but let the asker know that you appreciate the request and need to check your calendar and other commitments before you reply. 

3. Deliver your “no” with consideration. Prepare a 30-second “why” that offers a genuine rationale for declining the request. Perhaps you have too many other commitments right now, or the deadline conflicts with another important project you are working on. Perhaps the ask is outside of your scope of responsibilities or you believe it takes you away from your strategic priorities. As long as your rationale is delivered with care and respect, you should deliver your “no” honestly and to the point. 

4. Offer alternatives. A “hard no” puts the problem back squarely in the other person’s court with no next step. Could the work be put off a few weeks when you will have time to help? Does the team really need your expertise to complete the project? Can you recommend someone else to help with the request? Might you constructively question whether the work or project needs to be done at all? If your supervisor directly or implicitly demands a “yes,” ask what current work you are doing for them can be put on the back burner. Offering possible alternatives demonstrates that you care and gives the asker a path to move forward.

5. Thank people for asking! No matter what you may think about the request, someone came to you because they believe you can help them. They value you — your experience, expertise, leadership, work ethic, ability to get things done, etc. It never hurts to show appreciation by thanking them for their consideration.

Prepare for Your Next “No”

Stephen began practicing this five step discipline by writing down an ask that he expected would come in the next few weeks.

You can do this too. Work through the five steps above. Map out your response. Write it down. Consider the possible responses and reactions and adapt as needed. (For more, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Can I Really Say No? And If So, How?)

Getting to “no” is liberating. It opens time for you to work on those things that are most critical. It reduces stress. Often, people will appreciate your judgment and honesty more than they did before, and you will be perceived as a stronger leader. So, just say “no!”

To learn more about managing your priorities, saying “no,” and becoming a stronger leader, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.