The Crucial Art of Saying No

The latest edition of Saturday Night LIVE featured a skit of 3 twentysomethings telling their mothers they were not coming home for the holidays.

Well, trying to tell. It wasn’t pretty.

Funny as the skit was, it reminded me of just how tough it can be to say NO to anyone. Parent. Lover. Spouse. And whoa, how about your boss?

Saying NO, you have been told, is career suicide. Saying YES too often, you have learned, can be career suicide, as well.

I think of a chat I had with a stranger, a couple of years back, sitting at the counter of my favorite sushi bar in Ft. Lauderdale. Andy, as it turned out, was the just-retired CEO of a well-known Fortune 500 recruitment firm.

Do you miss your work? I asked Andy

I hated the politics of my job, Andy replied. I persisted.

So what kind of guidance would you give another executive on how to navigate politics?

I’m the wrong person to ask, Andy said sheepishly. I was horrible at it. A pause, and then he added this:

Learn to say NO and make them feel like they won!

“When your WHY is bold and Compelling, have the courage to just say it. NO.”

Achim Nowak

Tough. And crucial. One of my favorite definitions of “strategy” affirms that every successful strategy is about what we say NO to. Agreed. Success, I increasingly believe, is our ability to say NO to tactics that don’t quite make sense or that we cannot successfully execute.

How DO we turn something the other person doesn’t wish to hear into a WIN? Not by spinning it or spouting a bunch of nonsense like an unskilled politician. No, we do it by skillfully shaping the conversation so the other person’s perspective is invited to shift. When the NO suddenly seems like the only possible outcome.

Not easy. But when it works, the other person will be so grateful to you for your NO. Here are just a few ways of presenting a NO that will make the person feel like s/he just got a YES:

1. Define the trade-offs.

By not doing this deal, we will have plenty more cash and energy on hand for other deals that will likely be a lot more compelling and rewarding for us. We will be so much more richly rewarded for our patience and faith.

2. Articulate a powerful context for your NO.

Saying NO right now will save us countless headaches and ensure we don’t take ill-considered risks. It will force us to focus more fully on what we actually do best and improve this core rather than getting distracted by shiny objects.

3. State the benefits of making an exception.

By not making this policy uniform and allowing one business unit to follow different guidelines, we can actually better measure the impact of this new initiative. We will have a comparison study that will yield powerful data. We can always turn this temporary NO into a YES later and will then be armed with better information.

4. Propose a better WIN.

What if we invested in a robust and aggressive talent development program? I have a hunch that might solve many of our performance issues, and it would be heck of a lot more cost-effective than constantly recruiting and onboarding new staff.

“Saying NO, you have been told, is career suicide. Saying YES too often, you have learned, can be career suicide, as well” ~ Achim Nowak

Sometimes, just say it. NO. I have written 3 books. Each book was sold to a publisher before it was actually written, and then I had 6 – 9 months to deliver the manuscript. This on top of a whole slew of other professional commitments I already had for those months. The only way to complete my manuscripts was to say NO. A lot. To a lot of things.

It wasn’t that hard. The WHY for my NO was very clear – I had to finish a book. Everyone understood. And I saw plainly just how often I said YES to things when I didn’t really want to say YES to.

When your WHY is very compelling, have the courage to just say it. NO. The depth of our relationship with the other person and the urgency of the circumstances will define how explicit and direct our NO will be.

A clearly stated NO, coupled with our ability to shift another person’s perspective, is the ultimate relationship WIN. Because we have played above board, and we have done so with skill, there really is no hidden politics at play. Chances are, we have gained more respect in the other person’s eyes. We have grown our personal influence and earned the right for future NOs.

Try it. It feels great.

Related: How To Avoid the Authenticity Trap