“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly
and not saying no soon enough.”
— Josh Billings
In a world of more requests than we can possibly fulfill, learning to say no with grace and style is a skill we all need.
We should be saying no more than we say yes, although the opposite is usually true. We say yes too quickly and no too slowly.
To consistently say no with grace and clarity, we need a variety of responses. To some people, this comes naturally. Others, however, offer noncommittal answers like “I’ll try to fit that in,” or “I might be able to” when they know full well they can’t.
It’s far better, however, to offer a clear “no” than string someone along or give them a “slow no.”
In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, there is a great section called “The No Repertoire.”
Saying no is its own leadership capability. It is not just a peripheral skill. As with any ability, we start with limited experience.
He offers eight responses you can put into your repertoire.
1. The awkward pause. Instead of being controlled by the threat of an awkward silence, own it. Use it as a tool. When a request comes to you (obviously this works only in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before delivering your verdict. Or if you get a bit more bold, simply wait for the other person to fill the void.
2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). I recently received an e-mail inviting me to coffee. I replied: “I am consumed with writing my book right now :) But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.”
E-mail is also a good way to start practicing saying “no but” because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft your “no” to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find that the distance of e-mail reduces the fear of awkwardness.
3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” One leader I know found her time being hijacked by other people all day. A classic Nonessentialist, she was capable and smart and unable to say no, and as a result she soon became a “go to” person. People would run up to her and say, “Could you help with X project?” Meaning to be a good citizen, she said yes. But soon she felt burdened with all of these different agendas. Things changed for her when she learned to use a new phrase: “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” It gave her the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply that she was regretfully unavailable. It enabled her to take back control of her own decisions rather than be rushed into a “yes” when she was asked.
4. Use e-mail bouncebacks. It is totally natural and expected to get an autoresponse when someone is traveling or out of the office. Really, this is the most socially acceptable “no” there is. People aren’t saying they don’t want to reply to your e-mail, they’re just saying they can’t get back to you for a period of time. So why limit these to vacations and holidays? When I was writing this book I set an e-mail bounceback with the subject line “In Monk Mode.” The e-mail said: “Dear Friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize.—Greg.” And guess what? People seemed to adapt to my temporary absence and nonresponsiveness just fine.
5. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” Saying no to a senior leader at work is almost unthinkable, even laughable, for many people. However, when saying yes is going to compromise your ability to make the highest level of contribution to your work, it is also your obligation. In this case it is not only reasonable to say no, it is essential. One effective way to do that is to remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them to grapple with the trade-off.
For example, if your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can respond with “Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?” Or simply say, “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”
I know a leader who received this response from a subordinate. There was no way he wanted to be responsible for disrupting this productive and organized employee, so he took the nonessential work project back and gave it to someone else who was less organized!
6. Say it with humor. I recently was asked by a friend to join him in training for a marathon. My response was simple: “Nope!” He laughed a little and said, “Ah, you practice what you preach.” Just goes to show how useful it is to have a reputation as an Essentialist!
7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” For example, “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” By this you are also saying, “I won’t be able to drive you.” You are saying what you will not do, but you are couching it in terms of what you are willing to do. This is a particularly good way to navigate a request you would like to support somewhat but cannot throw your full weight behind. I particularly like this construct because it also expresses a respect for the other person’s ability to choose, as well as your own. It reminds both parties of the choices they have.
8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” It is tempting to think that our help is uniquely invaluable, but often people requesting something don’t really care if we’re the ones who help them— as long as they get the help.
Tom Friel, the former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, once said, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’”
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less isn’t about doing more with less but rather the disciplined pursuit of focusing on the right things.
Follow your curiosity: Steve Jobs knew how to say no.