Managing To Say No

Different people can ask you to do things, in work and outside, for differing reasons, with differing degrees of reasonableness. How you will feel about the request, and managing to say no, if that’s what you want, need or decide is your answer, will depend on the circumstances and a range of factors:

Who is asking? – Are they a close friend, your boss, or a complete stranger? Your emotional response and relationship considerations are going to differ markedly depending on who’s asking.

What are they asking for? – Do they want you to give them your time, your money, your advice, a kidney, or something else? 

Why are they asking and how much do they want it? – Have they told you? How important an issue is the request to them? And how much do want to let that weigh in your decision? 

What does it mean to you? – If they’re asking you to support a cause you believe in as well you may be inclined to say yes. If it’s for something you disapprove of then you’re more likely to say no. 

What impact does it have on you? – How much of your resources is this going to take up. If I’m asked to give change to a charity collector in the street I might do so. If they ask me to donate all my savings, (if I had any) I’d probably say no.

Have they the right to ask you? – Different people have the right to ask you different things in different situations. It’s not unreasonable for your boss to ask you to do work related things, but there will be a point affecting your personal life beyond which their rights to make requests should not go. Socially too, someone who does things you ask them to might have some right to expect you will be inclined to reciprocate. Whereas you may decide that someone who never returns favours has run out of the goodwill to expect them.

Why are they asking you? – How personal is the approach? Have they asked you specifically as the right person to help with the problem, or are they asking everybody? Are you just being asked because you’re the line of least resistance, someone who they think will always say yes? 

Overall you need to decide how you feel about it which often comes down to how reasonable you think the request is, rather than simply do I want to? 

Thinking through your views and responses in advance can help you in: 

  • making your decisions when the time comes; and in 
  • being comfortable with the decision you’ve made as you will know your no has come from a reasoned and thought through process. 

The general principles of saying no properly 

There are some basic rules which will help you to not only say no, but to say no effectively: 

Put a clear value on your own time and priorities – if you don’t, why should anyone else? Whenever someone asks for your time you need to have a clear view of what your current commitments and priorities are, otherwise how can you judge where this request ranks in relation to them? But once you have made a judgment, then you have your reasoned justification for deciding to say no.

Prepare and crucially, practise your no in advance – I’ll come back to this below in more detail but it makes sense to think through how you are going to say no in advance and even have some stock scripts you can use. And once you have your scripts you are going to need to be able to use them, so you need to rehearse them so you feel familiar with and as comfortable as possible when you come to deploying them in real life.

Avoid the question before it’s asked – if you can forestall a request so it’s never made then you don’t actually need to say no to it at all. If your schedule is fully booked for the next two weeks, why not let the people who come to you with requests know you don’t have any capacity in this period, and that you are focused on completing the tasks you have in hand? Some will take the hint and not ask (although once you are freed up it’s probably politic to a) let them know and b) thank them for giving you the space to get done what you needed. As for those who don’t and who still come to you? Well at least you can deal with their requests from the standpoint that they have done so in the full knowledge you have told them you are already booked up, so what answer should they reasonably be expecting?

Buy yourself time – the easiest initial response can be as simple as asking if you can get back to them on it (perhaps once you’ve checked your diary, or got clearance from someone else, if you need to give an explanation). This does then actually allow you to properly consider how it fits in with your capacity and priorities and give a considered answer, rather than being bounced into a response on the hoof. If having done so you decide you can’t help, then at least you can respond knowing you have given it proper consideration. It also gives you the opportunity to… 

Use the communication style that suits you – avoid face-to-face to start with if that helps. We each have different communication preferences and persuasion skills. Some are good at face-to-face communication, developing and delivering arguments on the hoof, some are much better by way of writing where they can structure the logic of their response and craft the language. So, when you need to say no, look to choose the approach that works best for you and if that’s by email, then don’t be afraid to look to use this as much as possible, particularly if you are still just looking to get comfortable with saying no. 

Be prepared to keep on saying it – some people won’t simply take no for an answer and will pester you to change your mind. Be warned, once they find this works, none of your nos to them will ever be final. Just ask any four-year-old about the value of pester power. While you should always be prepared to change your answer when and if the facts or your understanding based on rational discussion changes (and not emotional blackmail), you do need to get the reputation for sticking to your decisions, so no means no.

No, or not now? – while your no means no, this may often just be because of your current workload rather than a blanket decision for all time. It can be appropriate to let the asker know that you might be able to help later, particularly if you can clarify that by giving them a specific timescale (Sorry I can’t help now but I’m probably going to have some time next week), as otherwise you are opening a door for the request to be repeated incessantly. (Hi, are you free to help now? No, how about now?)

If you’re going to say no, say it quickly – when I ran a finance brokerage raising business loans we had a saying that a fast no was the second-best answer from a lender, as it meant our clients at least knew where they stood and weren’t kept hanging on. Sometimes people try to put off saying no in the hope the request will somehow go away and they won’t have to say anything that damages a relationship. Most of the time it doesn’t go away and your relationship is damaged as the asker becomes irritated waiting for an answer. If it does go away however, your relationship is still damaged because the asker definitely knows that you’ve ignored them up to and past the point it was too late. · (Usually) give a brief explanation – you may feel you need to give a reason to justify your no, as just a bland response can seem a bit harsh and discourteous, as if the other party isn’t worth the nicety of an account. It is generally a polite move but when you do give your reasons these should be brief and they should be couched as an explanation of your reasons as you see them, not a plea for understanding. The reason for including usually in brackets is there are some people who will see the reasons you give as either excuses, giving them the opportunity to try emotional blackmail by arguing the relative merits of your reasons against the greater claim their request should allegedly have on your time; or as issues, they can bargain or attempt to overcome so as to free you up to comply with their request. You really do not want to get into debating the merits of your reasons. Remember, in the absence of a significant change in the facts or your understanding, your no means no.

Be polite, but not over apologetic – carrying on from the point above, being courteous doesn’t hurt you. But remember, they chose to ask you, so you have the right to choose to say no, so why should you have to apologise for managing your time? The danger is that an apology carries an implication that you have something to apologise for and it can make you sound weak or even open you up to emotional blackmail.

Be assertive – the overriding lesson here is don’t be afraid to respect and express your own needs. After all, if it’s easy to grab your time just by asking for it, why wouldn’t people do it? Whereas if you are robust in defending your time, eventually the time wasters will learn not to bother you as there’ll always be an easier mark somewhere else. In many ways managing to saying no effectively can be a variation on a classic assertiveness formulation of structuring a response: 

  • What I like is X – say something positive, in this case such as, It’s great you’ve asked me.
  • What I don’t like is Y – where you state your position or feelings about the issue, such as, But unfortunately, I’ve already booked up to be at X all next week so I’m not here to do that for you. 
  • What I want is Z – where you state your requirements, which in this case is, I’m sorry but I have to say no/I can’t help. 

Offer something else to help – of course just because you need to say no to what you’ve been asked to do, doesn’t mean you don’t want to be helpful, so always try to think if there’s anything you can offer that would be useful. Depending on the request, this could be a wide range of things from links to information, to tools, or practical hints and tips. If you are offering something else, do make sure it’s something you can actually provide, obviously without taking more of your time than actually providing the help requested in the first place.

Divert to someone better placed to help – an alternative to something else you can do is someone else who might be able to do something better. Do you have a contact or a resource that you can forward them on to? After all they’ve approached you but what the asker usually wants is help solving their problem, so if you can send them on (possibly with a personal introduction) to someone in a better position to do so, how helpful is that? 

A 7 step no for all seasons 

Following on from this, it’s worthwhile having a basic outline structure you can turn to whenever you have to say no, which could be as simple as this: 

  1. Greeting – don’t forget to use their name. 
  2. Personal note – optional, but in relation building terms it’s always worthwhile including something personal and positive in correspondence (from something specific about them or their family, or their news, to the generic such as, It’s been ages since we’ve spoken) whenever you can as a reinforcement that you have a personal relationship over and above this particular transaction.
  3. Your thanks for being asked – show why you are grateful they have thought of and asked you and be very positive about what they are doing (What I like is…).
  4. What the issues are – this is your chance to explain how this impacts on you or what the problems are which would prevent you delivering (What I don’t like is…).
  5. Your no – don’t forget you do need to clearly state that this is the decision you have reached: As a result, I’m afraid I need to say no (What I want is…) which can reference the issues above.
  6. An offer of other support if you can – wherever possible you should always try to offer something by way of a contribution if you can, whether it’s something else you can do yourself, or by way of pointing them to other resources or people who may be able to help them with what they need. 
  7. A positive sign off – just because you can’t help this time you want to retain the relationship, so it’s worth making the effort to do so. Even if you can’t help you can hope their project goes well and is a success, can’t you? You can also try repeating your thanks for being thought of, or ask to be kept up to date with their progress to show your interest. 

You may then want to apply this structure to come up with a set of standard scripts to dealing with a variety of specific situations or requests you have to deal with on a regular basis.