Learning to Just Say NO

Jan 24, 2019

By Pat Nickerson and Alec Mackenzie

First, let’s set some ground rules. Let’s agree that 80 percent of the time you’ll say a resounding yes to your obligations at work, at home, and in the community. Beyond that, you may also stretch on many occasions, going out of your way to perform “random acts of kindness.”

But, what we’re talking about here are those bottom 20 percent of requests that set an alarm bell ringing in your mind; you realize you ought to say no. Once you hesitate, all is lost.

There are dozens of reasons why we hate saying no. Most of them relate to wanting to be liked. But your time is too limited to allow this self-indulgence. Every yes, given to a trivial time waster, will cut available time and energy for essential tasks. You will invariably end up overloaded and overstressed.

The Harsh Sound of “No”
As an astute professional, you’ve learned that the word no may insult the ear of a boss, colleague, or customer. A flat no can damage relationships and stunt your career, exposing you to labels like rude, uncooperative, egotistical, even insubordinate. Yet, you must set some limits, some boundaries, or be forced to accept tasks whose technical or ethical risks are plain as day.

A Five-Step “Softener”
Here’s a five-part approach that should get "no" across, firmly but gently:

1. When—for whatever reason—you must decline a request, don’t say “no” outright. The moment requesters feel denied or resisted, they stop listening and start building counterarguments.

2. Open, instead, with a response like: “I see a risk to you.” Or, possibly: “I see a risk to our customer/to the public,” whatever is true. This way, you raise requesters’ curiosity, not their defenses.

3. Let requesters see the risks, graphically. If you are in the same room together, start sketching the risks on a scratch pad. This puts their focus on the page, not on your face. Sometimes, the requesters will want to retrieve that sketch if they must make the case, later, with their own higher-ups. (How nice that they can leave your office, armed for the next round!)

4. Avoid mentioning any problem or inconvenience to yourself or your team. Your requester will expect you to manage your risks—and muffle your pain—in private.

5. Finally, be prepared to illustrate workable options for every risk you list. In fact, the moment you hear an unreasonable demand, your mind’s eye should envision a flashing two-column illustration of risks vs. options.

Know When to Decline a Request
Say no (or at least not yes) under the following five conditions:

1. Emergencies arising from another’s neglect—especially after repeated warnings.
Remedy: Let natural consequences unfold. It’s a fact of life that people continue bad behavior when there is no cost to them. If you don’t feel empowered to allow natural consequences, then escalate the case to a higher authority. Don’t take it on yourself to bury other people’s negligence; they’ll keep you busy shoveling forever.

2. Items of minor value but high urgency, placed in conflict with higher priorities.
Remedy: Even if you owe someone a favor—pay it another way, another day.

3. Demands, even from on high that look technically infeasible, impractical, or too costly.
Remedy: Present the risks and offer better options.

4. Manipulation by a peer palming off tedious work, with no reciprocal in view.
Remedy: Of course you help colleagues in need. Certainly, you forgive others, as you hope to be forgiven; but after a couple of lopsided bargains, you know a “dumping operation” when you see one. You need not define it aloud, but you cannot indulge it either. Find a civilized way to state your boundaries, using an “I statement.” Sidestep sarcasm or sermonizing. Try: “I’m not able to do that.” or “I usually say yes but this is one task I cannot take on.” or “I am definitely not qualified in that area of expertise.” Break off, pleasantly. No explanations required.

5. Demands that offend your moral or ethical sense.
Remedy: Don’t feel obliged to justify your view. You simply say “I would feel uncomfortable doing that. Please find another way.” Don’t back down. Don’t explain unless pressed. But, expect to lose popularity, for a while, with this person. Be willing to take your lumps at first. Possibly, after a requester gets a few more turndowns, you may get some thanks. Don’t bank on it.

Stand Strong
Determined requesters have heard and anticipated every likely excuse. They’ll push back with responses like:
• “But we’re counting on you. There’s no one else . . .”
• “You’re better at this than anyone—and the client asked for you, specifically . . .”
• “Yes, I know you’re busy; that’s why we chose you. You know how to get things done.”
• “If I need something done, I give it to a busy person . . .”

Don’t bother presenting specific excuses: they only draw counterarguments. Stay pleasant and positive while stating you are not available. Once you decide to say no to an inappropriate request, realize that requesters have no absolute right to know your reasons. Simply say, “I must say no this time.” Keep moving, pleasantly, in the direction you were going when they interrupted you with this request. Will they love you less? Yes. Temporarily.

Check Yourself
How do you score on saying no? Rank yourself (Yes/No) on the following questions; then, repeat the process in 30 days to chart your progress.

1. When I am asked to do something inappropriate or perform a task that someone else should do, I am able to say no gracefully. 
Now:      Y ____    N _____
30 Days: Y ____    N _____

2. When I point out a risk, I point out possible options, using graphics so the requester stays focused on issues, not on me.
Now:      Y ____    N _____
30 Days: Y ____    N _____

3. As a manager, I encourage team members to respond to my own unthinking requests by pointing out impacts on their other tasks.  
Now:      Y ____    N _____
30 Days: Y ____    N _____

4. I encourage them to suggest alternatives when “no” is the right answer. 
Now:      Y ____    N _____
30 Days: Y ____    N _____

5. I stay alert to other managers in the matrix, and support my team members when they must negotiate a trade-off.
Now:      Y ____    N _____
30 Days: Y ____    N _____

6. If I agree to a request too hastily, I immediately back off with an apology, so the requester can pursue other avenues.
Now:      Y ____    N _____
30 Days: Y ____    N _____

7. In general, I say no only to avoid neglect of more vital issues.
Now:      Y ____    N _____
30 Days: Y ____    N _____

Now:      Y ____    N _____
30 Days: Y ____    N _____

© 2009 Pat Nickerson and Alec Mackenzie.  All rights reserved.  Excerpted and adapted by permission of the publisher, from The Time Trap, Fourth Edition.  Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association,

About the Author(s)

Pat Nickerson and Alec Mackenzie Pat Nickerson is president of EBI Inc. and is the author of Managing Multiple Bosses as well as The Time Trap.  Alec Mackenzie was an internationally known speaker and expert on time management.