How to Say No

Saying no is painful. Deep inside I’ve just wanted to please the people in my life.  I don’t want to let anyone down.  Even when I muster up the courage to say no, I have a hard time holding my resolve.  I immediately start thinking how the requester will be angry with me or dislike me.  It turns out there is a reason for my dislike of saying no.  As Lauren Moon wrote for Trello, “This is because evolutionarily, it was beneficial for humans to live, hunt, and work together in large groups. Staying within the group increased the odds of survival thanks to shared resources, food, and an easier chance of finding “the one” (as far as dating or mating went back then). As a result, humans (even as far back as hominids) learned to adopt behaviors that were agreeable to a group dynamic. If someone was perceived as hostile or combative, they risked being ostracized from the group and subsequently, its shared resources.” Realizing that I’m hardwired to want to be agreeable and please others is the first step in understanding myself and the struggle to say no.

In Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith’s book, How Women Rise, this is the Disease to Please. As they wrote, “The disease to please can undermine your ability to make clear decisions because you’re always trying to split the difference about competing needs in hope of creating consensus or avoiding giving offense.  This can impair your judgment and leave you vulnerable to manipulation by people who know how to use cult to get others to accommodate their needs.  It can rob you of the capacity to act with authority for fear of disappointing others or making them even temporarily unhappy. It can make you an unreliable advocate or ally because you are so easily swayed.  It can distract you from your purpose, squander your time and talents, and contribute to your general stuckness.” I find this interesting because, to some degree, my inability to say no is impacting how I can be perceived as easily swayed and an unreliable advocate. This is the last thing I want to have happen.  My inability to say no is making me be perceived as weak and indecisive.

5 techniques to saying no:

Be timely.  I find that the longer I wait to respond to a request, the more likely I am to say yes.  So, I’m thinking, well since I haven’t responded to Suzy’s email in the last week, I better say yes or she’ll really dislike me.  I’ve already been a jerk by not responding, I better say yes so she doesn’t kick me off the team.  And even if you still say no, now I’ve put the other person in a bind because they haven’t found another resource for help.  What ever you do, yes or no, respond with your answer quickly.

Be concise. I’ve used this in all sorts of difficult conversations like terminations and performance issues.  Come up with one sentence or two that summarizes succinctly the issue and the action you are taking.  Example: I can’t work on the widget budget at this time, unfortunately it’s not a good time for me. Or Sadly, I can’t be on the marshmallow project team, it doesn’t sound like the right fit for me. I find that if it’s concise and to the point, I don’t hesitate as much, I’m less likely to say things like “um”, and I don’t ramble as much.  When I ramble, it opens the door to saying yes. I also think that being clear and concise is more confident and decisive. 

Be polite. The main reason you don’t want to say no is that you don’t want to be rude.  Keeping kindness in mind is helpful in saying no. As written by Jessi Christian for Flowrite, “People want to feel seen and appreciated, even when you have to deny them their request. So let the other person feel good about themselves! You might have heard of a “shit sandwich” when giving feedback to an employee, but it also works perfectly when you have to say no. A shit sandwich works simply: You start on a positive note (“This sounds like an interesting event”), tell them the bad message (“But unfortunately I won’t be able to attend as a speaker.”), and end with kindness (“I’m sure you’ll have a successful conference in any case!”).  In emails, try not to use abbreviations for Thanks (thx) or Your Welcome (yw) as well.  If you’re turning someone down, make the extra key strokes to be polite.

Be clear if the door is open or closed.   I can remember when I was a Human Resource Professional that there were annual time sucks like budgeting and company wide annual reviews. I wasn’t available for anything additional at all.  Period. But the middle of July was pretty open.  So, if you can’t help out, ever, clearly close the door with Thank you so much for thinking of me. Given my current workload, I’m unable to do a good job on your project, as my other work would suffer. On the other hand, if this sounds like a real career boosting project and, although you can’t do it now, think about leaving the door open with: “I’m unavailable right now” or “I don’t have the capacity at the moment”.  If you want the door open, you may want to spell out what interests you and when you might be available.  

Refer them.  Benjamin Franklin once said that “if you want something done, ask a busy person.” Sometimes I end up with a full plate because the requester didn’t realize there was someone better qualified to answer their question or work on the project.  Think about whether you are the correct person to be working on this.  Is there someone else whose job this is?   As Christian wrote, “A simple referral can be a huge help for your counterpart. Introducing them to another person that can take over the job or that is even more suitable for the task can be worth taking your time, especially with people you work with long term.” See if there is someone better suited to help out.

I think I’ve learned to be more discerning in the last year after retiring from my full-time job.  I recently had a client ask for a time slot on a Friday.  I have tried to keep Fridays free. I hesitated but said I didn’t have any available slots on Friday.  I think if they had pushed, I would have acquiesced, they didn’t.  Sometimes it just takes practice to say no. How do you say no?