How to Say No – and Succeed – in a Yes Culture

Posted on June 21, 2010


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Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your work, your commitments, your ‘to do’ list?

Do you feel pressure to do even more?

Do you feel guilty if/when you can’t deliver?

Maybe it’s time to learn to say No.

This is hard.  We live in a Yes culture. We want it all, so we say Yes.  We expect it all, so we want everyone else to say Yes.  Business management gurus urge us to avoid being the Downer, the Guy or Gal who points out all the problems with a project, who hesitates to jump on board, who shows less than 150% enthusiasm.  And so we say Yes, Yes, Yes!

Even with our kids, we say Yes when we mean No.  We say, “Later” or “When your dad comes home” or “When you’re 15” when we really mean I don’t want to think about this right now or I know you won’t leave me alone until I say yes, so I’ll say this version of Yes so you’ll drop the subject.  Note to parents: the kids know we’re doing this.

In all of these instances, we’re being dishonest.  We’re either trying to fool our bosses, our spouses, our kids, our customers – or, perhaps worst of all, ourselves.  Often we don’t deliver.  Or we deliver – but poorly.  And when we succeed – temporarily – in fooling ourselves, we feel guilty when we don’t deliver something that should never have been promised in the first place.  When I promise myself to take my son to the movies after I finish my work on a busy week night, he’s not the only one disappointed if I don’t deliver.  I am disappointed in myself.  I feel guilty, and I berate myself for not delivering.

What’s the solution?  Learn how to say No.

And despite the fact that No seems to be the 3rd word that every toddler learns, saying No – the right way – takes skill.  So, how do we say No the right way?  Here’s how:

  1. Start with the relationship.  Remember that someone who asks you to give or do or be something might be taking a small risk in making the request.  Is the request important to them?  Acknowledge their feelings, show them that you care and understand their needs.  Something like, “That’s a good idea” or even “Thank-you for asking.”
  2. Understand the exact nature of the request.  Sometimes we over- or under- estimate the scope of the request.  Ask questions to get a strong sense of exactly what they’re requesting.  Do they want the moon – or just a picture/story?  Do they need a day – or just a couple minutes?  Do they need YOU and YOUR participation – or are they just letting you know or asking for permission?  Use your questions both to understand – and to help THEM understand the nature of what they’re asking (they may not realize they’re making a big request.)  For example, you could ask “So, are you asking me to go to the hardware store, buy supplies, create plans and templates, measure out and cut the pieces and assemble the airplane, then sand, prime and paint it?” or “That sounds like it would cost $500 – but I’ve only  budgeted $10.”
  3. Tell them what you’re working on or give them a sense of why you can’t fulfill their request.  Sometimes people don’t know what you’re trying to tackle, so let them know.  Be specific.  Rather than, “Oh, I’ve got soooo much work to do” say, “That sounds like a reasonable request, and I’d like to help you out.  But here’s what I’m working on right now . . . ”  Explain that you would have to stop working on your own project to give their project or request the right amount of attention. Do this whenever you have something that you believe is a higher priority than the request, even if – or perhaps especially if – your boss is the one making the request.  You might have to remind the requestor of important other times that you’ve said Yes to their requests.  Then move quickly to step #4.
  4. Help them figure out a solution.  If your boss is the one making the request and s/he thinks the request is a higher priority, ask for help with getting the other task done or getting extra time to do one or both projects.  In any case, spend a little time brainstorming alternate solutions for the person making the request.  Can a different person fulfill the request?  Can the request be modified to make it less onerous  – or deferred until the task you’re currently working on is complete?  Are you solving or working on the right problem?  Can you both hold your breath and say No to something Good – in favor of something Great?  Keep directing the conversation – and your thought process – to the big picture – how do we create the most value for everyone involved?  How do we satisfy our customers, our relatives, our friends, ourselves?  How does saying Yes align with our personal priorities – and how does saying No align with our personal priorities.
  5. Know your limits and boundaries – and communicate them. How many hours are you willing to work – and on what projects?  How much money are you willing to spend on this issue?  Know your values and priorities.  Know your overall mission and objective.  Say No to whatever violates your personal values.  Say no to whatever crosses your boundaries.  At some point you just have to bite the bullet and say, “No.”  Be polite, be kind – but be firm.  Say No.

What do you get when you say No?  The payoff may take a while in coming, but it’s worth the wait.  When you can say No the right way, you get:

  • Sanity.  Balance.  Saying No is the way to get off the hamster wheel.  A thoughtful No limits the growth of your ‘to do’ list, slows things down a bit, enables you to focus on the right things and do them well.
  • Credibility.  If you do it right, you still say Yes plenty of times.  If you do it right, the times you say No, people will pay attention – and maybe even think about the requests they make before they make them.  As a manager, I had a LOT of respect for staff members who could say No the right way – a LOT more respect than I did for staff members who said Yes – and then didn’t deliver.
  • Courage.  We’re all so used to hearing Yes – even an unenthusiastic and insincere Yes – that saying No often requires courage.  Exercise your courage a little bit by saying No – the right way – and you’ll build courage to do bigger things.
  • Self-respect.  If you’re a person who can say No the right way, then you’re a person who can say Yes the right way.  You’re a person who honors your word.
  • A Meaningful life.  When you can say No, you can live your life intentionally.  You can conform your life to your values.

Finally – think about what you could accomplish if you said No – the right way – to the things that DON’T help you in your quest to live an AMAZING life.  What would your life look like?  What could you do?

What would you choose to do?

Would love to hear about the times you DID – or WISHED you did – say No.  What happened?



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