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How to Say No

Do you feel guilty for saying no? Do you say yes but take on too much as a result? Or, maybe you find it easy to say no but you annoy or hurt people in the process.

Some find it hard to say no to their boss and other people whose approval is important to them. Others find it relatively easy to say no but they leave people feeling frustrated, annoyed, rejected or undervalued.

Saying no is a problem, whether we say it or not. What we need are some practical tips for saying no in a way that doesn't damage important relationships but which also ensures that we don't take too many monkeys on our back.

Suppose your boss (or some other important colleague) asks you to take on a project that he thinks is important and relatively urgent. You feel that you are just too busy. What do you say? "Sorry, I'm just too busy at the moment." This is the wrong answer. This response is too rejecting and frustrating, even if you say it politely.

In addition, saying that you're too busy focuses on your needs, not your boss's - another mistake. Moreover, saying that you're too busy is just an excuse. The underlying reason for saying no is that you don't think this task is important enough. The truth is that you're only too busy to do things that don't you don't rate very highly.

Steps for Saying No Constructively

The first step is to acknowledge the importance of both your boss and his request: "I can see the benefits of doing this and as soon as possible." Or: "Sounds like a great idea that would improve things a lot around here."

The second step is to help your boss find the best solution for his problem. Say something like: "Let's think through how best to get this done." Or: "Given our scarce resources, let's brainstorm who would be the best person to take this on at the moment."

The point here is that you are not saying either yes or no because you're not volunteering to take it on or simply telling your boss to get lost.

Instead, you are genuinely helping your boss solve his problem. You might say: "This would be a great development opportunity for Sally. I appreciate your confidence in me to do it but I think Sally could do a great job on this. I would be happy to mentor her through it if you're concerned about her capability."

There may be other people who would be good candidates to do this project and for other reasons. The point is to help your boss find a solution rather than just saying no and effectively telling him it's his problem not yours.

Another response might be as follows: "Given the importance of this project, how would you like me to prioritize it relative to my other priorities, A, B, C, etc.?" If your boss insists that you are the best person for this project, a question like this can help him to step back and weigh up the relative importance to him, as your number one internal customer, of everything you have on your plate at the moment.

As a result of a little soul-searching, he might give you permission to leave B and C for a while or he might back off and say he'd better find someone else to do his project. The point here is to foster shared ownership with your boss of your priorities. If, instead, you just say no, you're effectively saying he has no say in how you spend your time.

The key is to create a sense of shared ownership for the decision, thus solving the problem together or, even better, getting your boss to make the decision himself that he needs to find someone else to do this project. Either way, you aren't conveying the impression that you don't think his idea is worth your time or that his needs aren't that important to you.

Keep in mind, as noted above, that saying you're too busy is simply shorthand for saying that you don't think the idea is important enough, not an impression you want to convey to your boss who obviously does think it's important.

Suppose a colleague or direct report asks you for some help. You may find it easier to say no to someone at, or below, your level but the relationship damage could be just as real.

The way out of this dilemma is the same as with your boss. Help your colleague solve her problem without doing more than necessary. For instance, you might offer some advice or coaching, indicating the steps you would go through. Also, ask whether doing this job be an opportunity for her. You could suggest that she take it through a few steps and come back to you for feedback on her progress.

In any case, you're again not saying yes or no, but offering guidance and support as a substitute for more time-consuming help. This is a win-win solution. You save time and your colleague gets the help she needs without feeling rejected and unimportant.

Another approach is to do a swap. Agree to take on something that perhaps only you can do in exchange for the other person taking something else off of your hands.

No doubt you can think of other ways of helping people that don't entail your taking on too much or saying a flat no. The key is to ask yourself: "How can I best help this person without giving up too much of my scarce time?"

Coming back to your boss, there is another angle you could take, if you are confident enough and/or have a strong relationship with him. If you have set yourself up as a trusted advisor to him, you might help him explore his own priorities.

The basis for investing time and talent in any initiative is its relative importance. Nothing is absolutely important in a vacuum. Things are only relatively more important than other things. This approach needs to be handled carefully, however. You don't want to convey the impression that you don't think your boss has thought this through fully enough. Judicious, supportively asked questions may, however, stimulate your boss to conclude that his project, though a good idea, can wait until the next quarter.

Banishing Guilt

We feel guilty when we say no, precisely because we feel we've let someone down, hurt their feelings or made them feel undervalued. The key to banishing the guilt trip is helping people solve their problems without taking the monkey on your back.

This way, you can tell yourself that you have been genuinely helpful and not rejecting. There is no guarantee that you won't feel a shred of guilt but you should feel less guilt than if you simply said no and waited for them to leave you alone.

In Summary:

  • Focus on the other person's needs, not your own
  • Acknowledge the importance of the request and the person making it
  • Offer help in solving the other peron's problem without doing it yourself
  • Follow up to see if the issue was solved to the other person's satisfactorion - proves that you do in fact care
  • Banish guilt by saying something other than "no.

See alsoCollaborative AssertivenessRelationships at Work and Questions for Success. 

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