How do I learn to say ‘no’…..and still get to a ‘yes’?!!

Many of you shared with me the paradox you face when trying to say no (when you may actually want to say yes); however, due to resource constraints and other pressing priorities, the answer, at least at that point in time, must be ‘no’. So, how do we do this AND preserve relationships, keep a project on track, and continue to build credibility and respect within the organization? Well, many of my clients know I am bullish on the book The Power of the Positive No, which my own leadership coach recommended to me many years ago. It has literally transformed the way I think about saying ‘no’ and holding myself accountable to self-preserving boundaries. In fact, ‘no’ can be a most impactful and transformative word.

Knowing you are busy, and that our time is our greatest asset, below are just a few basic points on how to begin TODAY to effectively say ‘no’:

  1. Remember your tone and underlying intent need to be ‘aligned’ with your words – if they are to have the correct impact.  We know the word ‘no’ is a pure POWER word; thus, it is always ‘direct enough’ without harshness. Graciousness in delivery is like ‘honey to flies’.
  2. No does not necessarily mean no forever. No – may just mean – ‘No, not now’.
  3. “I prefer to say ‘no’ than to do a poor job”. Remember, our reputation (our brand….which will be a topic in upcoming articles), is EVERYTHING. And, it only takes a few sour experiences to taint that reputation. It is amazing how when you put the client (or boss’s) satisfaction as paramount – how receptive they are to your lack of deference to an arbitrary deadline.
  4. As you close one door, open another. In other words, you may say no to their request; however, you can propose another option. Please do not interpret this to mean ‘softening your no’….in fact, the new proposal should reinforce your no AND offer a practical, realistic, and worthwhile alternative.

Still not sure how to use words to ‘say no’ and/or renegotiate the request? Here are a few very basic tips, which once mastered can become second nature:

  1. After you have listened respectfully to the request, then paraphrase the request to ‘check for understanding’. Again, tone and inflection is critical – as this can be misinterpreted if it is perceived as challenging or argumentative. Consider phrases such as: “Let me make sure I understand what you need”…..”If I am hearing you correctly, you need….”……”Help me understand….”.
  2. Meet them where they are.…by acknowledging where they are, what they need, and the pressure they feel – you get ‘in the boat with them’. This is 100% about aligning with them….through compassion and putting your feet in their shoes. This is so easy to do – yet, I am amazed at how seldom this approach is used.
  3. Go to the balcony  – which in my world is a place of benign observation. Listen openly – try to ‘not have a dog in the hunt’….just listen. Listen for clues on what is driving the request, the challenges he/she is facing, and try to uncover ALTERNATIVES to the situation.
  4. Share your rational – honestly, calmly, and clearly. Again, most folks are mature and once they understand your dilemma, then you can collectively discuss alternatives.
  5. Remove ‘but’ from your vocabulary…..and insert AND. For some reason, in Corporate America, we get very good at putting in place binary words. Yet, frankly, seldom is EVERY alternative a simple yes or no. An article I wrote several years ago has become a favorite of corporate executives.….you may want to take a look at the power of the word AND when you are negotiating.
  6. Finally, say what you need to say. Period. There are a few pet peeves to address relative to this point and our language. First: What is up with ‘right?’ Earlier this month, I began to count how many times individuals – from all over the world –  with whom I work or interact, finished their sentences with “yeah, right?” It has become a familiar ‘tag on’ to conversation, as if we need approval, validation, or recognition that what we are saying is indeed right. I want to say, “I have no idea if you are right – you are telling this story!” That quirk may be acceptable socially; yet, as leaders, this simply weakens the power of our message. If you need to ask a question, then ask – otherwise, state your point and let it rest without asking for validation from your audience each and every time. Secondly, ending a statement with a questionable tone is simply not appropriate. I don’t know where or how this trend began; however, I have countless clients who end their statements with an upward lilt in their voice, as if they are asking a question or leaving it open for discussion. It is a habit which then becomes pervasive in an organization. When it becomes habitual in a company, seldom will you hear someone simply state their point with firm, convincing, and unquestionable authority. It lessons the power of our message and certainly distracts from a confident executive presence. Be aware of this tendency, and practice consciously the ability to state your points with conviction. Finally, be aware of overused words and clichés. I remember when “gross me out” was a phrase that every teenager used as frequently as many executives use “out of the box”!  When we use these phrases too often or inappropriately, they undoubtedly distract from our executive presence. In addition, the words lose their power and effectiveness. Buzz words are just that – buzz words. What are we really trying to say? Think about it. Be deliberate and descriptive. By speaking in your style with your own words, your voice will be authentic and you will be at your most powerful AND be able to effectively say ‘no’ in a positive way.

Finally, let’s put this into action……a few examples:

  1. When your boss (or client) asks you to execute against a large, overwhelming assignment, try asking them to help you by prioritizing aspects of the project. For example, “Bob, I will certainly do my best to get this accomplished in this short lead time; however, to ensure I focus on the right aspects, what are the key priorities within the project?” This puts the ball in their court, forces them to articulate the orders of priority, and gives them the control over the order of outcome.
  2. When a co-worker requests you drop everything to help them, try this: “You know I would love to help you, and certainly remain committed to our collective success; however, I have a similar deadline which I must deliver against, as well. Could I check back with you after I have completed (or at least gotten it under control!) this assignment, and we can go from there?”
  3. When you cannot say ‘yes’ to the entire ‘ask’…..yet, you could say ‘yes’ to a portion’: “Bob, it will be very hard to meet the deadline you have for the entire project; however, I could get the initial outline, RASI, or framework defined. Then, perhaps we could consider an intern or freelancer to help us out? I can help oversee the progress, so that our deadlines are met; however, we need to consider leveraging outside assistance”.

Learning the ability to deliver a ‘positive no’ actually can help us build strong cross functional teams and more authentic relationships. When we are honest and respectful (note, I did not say passive aggressive or martyred in our approach), teamwork, credibility, and mutual respect is built.