Skills 360 – How to Say No (Part 1)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast! I’m your host Tim Simmons.

Today I want to start with a situation. Imagine this: you are sitting in your office trying to catch up on paperwork. A colleague walks in with a panicked look on his face. He says, “This proposal has to go out by 4:00pm but the formatting is all messed up. Could you help me?”

Sound familiar? And I bet you’d like to reply, “I’m afraid I’m too busy at the moment.” But what you really say is “well, okay.” Or “hmm, I’m kinda in the middle of something but maybe during lunch…” Or “let me think about it…”

Why is it so difficult to say no? Well, of course you want to be polite, and kind, and agreeable, and a good person who helps out his co-workers. If it’s a boss who is asking you for something, you may fear losing favor or opportunities. And if it’s a client or customer asking for something, you might not want to ruin the relationship.

But what I want to tell you is that in many cases you should say no. And you should know how to say it. You and your time are important, and if you’re too busy, well, you’re too busy! You need to avoid overcommitting. If you try to do too much, you’ll do nothing well. Saying yes to everything can lead to disaster, even though you feared the results of not saying yes.

And remember that people can usually see when you want to say no but can’t. That doesn’t make you appear very strong and confident. Those people will keep asking you until you find a way to say “no,” clearly, firmly, and honestly.

That’s the key: you need to be clear, firm, and honest. There are several ways we can do this.

First of all, treat “no” as a normal thing. If you make a big deal of your refusal, it will seem like a big deal. So avoid long explanations. And don’t be too apologetic. Many people apologize automatically, saying “I’m so sorry Dave, but I can’t.” But should you really be sorry for being busy? Save your apologies for times when you really foul something up.

Second, learn to be firm. You may want to hesitate or hedge by saying “well, I’m not sure…” or “that might be possible…” In many cases, you’re just doing this because you’re trying to find a way to say no. So just say no firmly. Don’t leave the door open to negotiation or discussion. If it doesn’t work, say “that doesn’t work.”

This is not only firm, but clear. You see, we often want to give excuses for not being able to do something without saying clearly that we can’t. So your boss asks you to come in on Saturday, and you say “Gee, that’s the weekend, and I was thinking of going golfing.” That’s not clear. “I can’t come in on Saturday” is clear.

People appreciate honesty, so tell them the truth. If something is not possible, say so. And be specific. So if a customer asks for a quick turnaround when your company doesn’t have the resources to make it happen, then say that. Like this: “There’s no way we can do it in that timeframe.” You can even highlight your honesty by starting with something like “I have to be frank here” or “to be perfectly honest with you.” That emphasizes the fact that you’re being realistic.

One final tip for today: if you really want to be clear, the start your response with our magic word itself. That’s right, just say “no.” Of course, you might want to say a bit more than that. Just “no” is rude. But consider something like this: “No, Dave, I can’t help you right now because I’m behind on my own work.” That’s clear, firm and honest.

Now you might be thinking that sometimes you need more diplomacy. You can’t just shut the door in someone’s face with a clear and firm “no”. Well, that’s what we’ll talk about next time. We’ll learn some ways to soften our “no”s, while keeping them firm and clear.

That’s all for today. If you’d like to test yourself on what we’ve just covered, have a look at the website. There you’ll find a quiz about today’s show as well as a complete transcript.