What makes saying “no” so difficult?

First, we all have these archetypal saboteurs that run like tape recordings in our heads. Some of the saboteurs that make saying “no” most difficult include:

The pleaser who believes “people won’t like or value me if I don’t meet their needs by saying ‘yes.’”

The hyper-achiever who believes ”my success comes from achievement (getting stuff done) at all costs.”

The restless wanderer who believes “life is too short so my goal is to accomplish and experience as much as possible.”

Second, saying “no” to others often violates social expectations. We run the risk of offending and alienating ourselves from others. Saying “yes” means you are a team player and a loyal friend or family member.

The antidote to fears about disappointing someone, burning bridges, and missing out is having a core intent. Your core intent is the highest and best use of your life energy. It is what you want to contribute in the world more than anything else. Saying “no” means protecting your core intent. A clear core intent drowns out the voices of saboteurs.

A skillful “no” is unambiguous, gracious, and authentic. Here are some tips for how to deliver a “no” with authority and integrity.

Accept from the start that a “no” may make you less popular in the moment. While saying “no” may disappoint or even anger others, in the long run your “no” will just as often earn the trust and respect of others who recognize that you are protecting your core intent, not to mention your sanity and well-being.

Leave no room for misinterpretation. Falling back on “Well, let me get back to you on this” or “I might be able to make this work” sets you up to disappoint others when you can’t or don’t deliver. If you mean to say “no”, say it. A respectful “no” sounds like this: My current obligations and priorities won’t allow me to meet your request.

Suggest another option. When I have to say “no” to existing or potential clients, my rule of thumb is to suggest an alternative resource or approach to get their needs met. This type of “no” sounds like: I’m not able to take on this new project on your timeline. However, I have a colleague I respect who I believe could help you succeed.

Combine “no” with a high-integrity “yes.” When there is some aspect of a request that you can meet without hijacking your core purpose (e.g., providing a resource that does not involve your time and energy) buffer your “no” with a “yes” to that one thing. This helpful “no” sounds like: I’m not able to help you move on that date. What I am able to do is loan you the keys to my truck if you can pick them up.

Put the trade-offs on the table. It’s too easy to deny that saying yes to one thing often means de-prioritizing something else. So, especially when dealing with senior leaders and customers it is important that you give them the bigger context for why you must say “no” or ask for their input on navigating the trade-offs. The operative question guiding this conversation is: If I say yes to this request, what should I de-prioritize?

As Greg McKeown points out in his book Essentialism, “saying ‘no’ is a leadership capacity” — one that most of us have not yet mastered. It takes practice. It involves not getting it quite right at first and learning from those missteps. And once mastered, it unleashes a form of freedom that you will enjoy in every part of your life.

Where might learning to say an authentic, unambiguous, gracious “no” be helpful in your life?

Photo credit: John Coster

Share This