How to say No (nicely) – Canadian Government Executive

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Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
September 13, 2013

How to say No (nicely)

NO! How One Simple Word Can Transform Your Life
Jana Kemp
Amacom, 226 pages, $17.95

How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty
Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch
Basic Books, 253 pages, $35.00

The Power Of A Positive No
William Ury
Bantam, 257 pages, $30.00
No. The word jars us. Just two letters, but it makes us decidedly uncomfortable. In the workplace, Yes is the golden word, the winning word, the expected word that garners plaudits. No is negative, a downer – a word we are not supposed to utter, and so restrain ourselves from using.

“The problem is that we now live in a cultural era in which adults are conditioned to say yes to maintain an image of being a team player,” time management consultant Jana Kemp writes in No!: How One Simple Word Can Transform Your Life.

Indeed, in the past 25 years we have been coached in the workplace to say yes to more and more work demands, to every client whim, and even in negotiations, where the key is getting to yes. No = bad. Yes = good.

Except it may well be the reverse if we want to be effective. Yes is acceding to everyone else’s demands. No is a sign of taking control, of putting our own priorities first, which in some cases may be wrong but in many cases is ideal.

She suggests trying a self-assessment. What she calls a Master of No will often say no very directly in the following ways: “No,” “No way,” “No, thank you,” “My schedule doesn’t allow me to take that on at all,” and “I won’t do that at all.”

However, too many people, when they try to signal no, are often saying maybe in mealy-mouthed fashion: “Couldn’t you find somebody else?” “My schedule doesn’t allow me to take that on right now,” or “I could do that if you can’t find anyone else.”

To help, she has developed an approach she calls The Power of No, with five decision points that help steer you on a No track:

• Purpose: Start by understanding the purpose of the request. Is it related to your organization’s goal and to your goals, and does it promote or hurt your well being? If somebody asks you to a meeting, for example, immediately ask the purpose. Be aware of requests that are dangerous – contradicting your goals or that of your organization. It may seem cold to always be enquiring about the purpose when requests are made, but it heightens your effectiveness.
• Options and resources: Determine the choices available to you to accomplish the request and the resources available to help. That includes finding out if somebody else can take on the assignment, how many different ways the task can be completed, and what tools, equipment, money and people can be used. “A project, invitation or proposal may sound good. However, until you discover what options and resources are available for the completion of the request, how can you know how realistic the request is?” she asks.
• When: Determine the timeframe, the exact date and time when it is to be completed. This will generally mean asking directly. Find out if that is a negotiable or floating deadline. Don’t accept “as soon as possible,” she cautions, as you have no idea whether the other person means two days or two months with that answer. Identifying the clear deadline is in everyone’s best interest. It will protect your time and that of your team.
• Emotional ties: Saying no is both a logical and emotional experience. The previous steps have focused on logical elements for making a decision. Now consider what emotions will be unleashed by your answer. “Ask yourself how you will feel if you say no. And consider how you will feel if you say yes? Then determine what your best response to a request really is,” she says.
• Rights and responsibilities: Check what rights you will have if you say yes or no – what will be the impact of either answer – and what responsibilities you will be accountable for. Even if you say no you may not be relieved of all responsibility, but may have to inform others what has changed or help to find someone else to do the task.

Often we don’t want to say no, of course, because we want to be nice. In How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty, Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch argue you can say no and still be nice. To build up your courage for the really difficult “no’s” they suggest you start small, practising saying no in non-threatening encounters where there isn’t much at stake, such as choosing what restaurant for lunch or telling your son he can’t have more dessert. “The object is to hear yourself saying no successfully. Little by little, stretch yourself by saying no in more challenging circumstances,” they urge.

As you expand, two basic principles are critical. First, saying no without guilt will be easier for all involved if it’s done in a spirit of generosity. That means being helpful and saying yes whenever it doesn’t cause significant stress or inconvenience.

Second, when saying no, less is more. The most powerful and effective “no’s” are the least complicated. Don’t feel obligated when telling the boss you can’t work late to give a detailed explanation (particularly an invented one). Elaborating is seldom necessary and might only lead the other person to try to solve the problem; be miffed that the reason isn’t sufficient; or catch you in a lie.

Building on those principles, they outline five basic techniques:

• Buy time: Get in the habit of buying time to decide on a request or to figure out a diplomatic way to say no. Respond that you need to check your calendar or speak to your spouse.
• Fall back on policy: It’s easiest to say no when you link your reply to some unalterable policy. An example: “I have a policy of never lending money to co-workers. I found it can cause problems later.”
• Prevention: You can avoid many unwelcome requests by avoiding situations that are likely to invite them. Don’t tell your mother that you’re taking the weekend off if you don’t want to spend time with her.
• “I have other plans”: If you need a night alone at home to take a bubble bath or read a good book, that’s a plan. Feel free to defend unstructured time.
• Face-saving excuses: Although the authors stress you should not lie to escape unwelcome requests, sometimes a face-saving tool will be necessary to avoid hurting someone else.

In The Power Of A Positive No, Harvard University negotiations expert William Ury describes life as a dance of Yes and No – more deeply, a struggle between exercising your power and tending to your relationship with the other party in a given situation. We generally handle this power-versus-relationship dilemma by accommodating the other person, saying Yes when we want No; or unintentionally attacking the other person by saying No poorly; or avoiding the issue by not saying Yes or No.

The solution is to engage the other person in a constructive and respectful confrontation. “It is possible to use your power and at the same time to preserve your relationship. That is the heart of what it means to say a Positive No,” explains Mr. Ury.

For that, he outlines three steps:

• How to prepare a positive No: Instead of delivering your No by starting from No – what you are against – it is important to base it on what you are for. “Instead of starting from No, start from Yes. Root your No in a deeper Yes – a Yes to your core interest and to what truly matters,” he says.
• How to deliver a positive No: You must now announce your No, but in a positive way, with skill and tact. That begins with an affirmation (your Yes!), proceeds to establish a limit (your No), and ends with a proposal to keep the relationship firm (can we find a Yes together?).
• How to follow through: You may feel the hard work is over but now you must manage the other person’s reaction, as they go through the various stages of acceptance of your answer, which will include denial, anger, bargaining and sadness. You may have to repeat your No many more times, and even deploy a Plan B. Finally, you will have to negotiate to a Yes, facilitating a wise agreement.

No isn’t easy. But it’s an important word to be able to use comfortably.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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