The Art And Science Of Saying No Without Feeling Guilty

Nobody is surprised when a toddler issues an emphatic "NO!" -- even when accompanied by a red face, clenched fists and stamping feet. And the "victims" of toddler negativism usually recover quickly. Even a father, whose question "Do you love Daddy?" was what triggered the nay-saying behavior from his diminutive daughter, won't stay hurt for long.

We understand that a toddler's "no" is merely a clause in her declaration of independence from her parents. It doesn't pack the power of an adult's "no."

It's Time To Grow Up
As we move beyond the toddler stage, however, we gradually learn to temper our use of "no." By the time we reach adulthood, we have buried our inner toddler -- and her ability to say "no" -- so deep, handling interactions where a "yes" or "no" is sought and required becomes complicated and uncomfortable.

Our ability to deliver a firm "no" is a necessary step to strengthen our network and earn the respect of our friends, peers, and neighbors, even if we chose to soften our "no" response by adding words such as "regrettably" or "unfortunately." As adults we often forget the power of "no" when asked by friends and colleagues to do something that we do not want to do. This is particularly challenging when confronted with the realization that we can, in fact, do it, but simply do not wish to. Even if "no" is precisely the response required and it is what we want to say, we simply can't say it. We agonize over it. We avoid the person. We ignore the email. We don't answer the phone. We convince ourselves that we'll get to it later, knowing that later will never come. Or, when feeling trapped, we respond tentatively without making a firm commitment, to allow for a last-minute change of mind. Sometimes, given our fast-paced, highly demanding way of life, we simply, truly forget. Using a different tactic, we may quickly affirm that we will try to do it, which makes it even worse for the one making the request. Should they count on someone who is going to try to help you? As the judicious Yoda from Star Wars said: "Do or do not. There is no try."

There is still another strategy used to avoid saying no: the silent or omitted negation. Failing to respond, even with a "no thanks," is one of the most common mistakes that we make. It hurts our capacity to build social relationships. We opt to have the other person infer our "no" by providing no answer at all, assuming often incorrectly that the other party will forget or take our omission as a "no." In the world of mathematics, a negative multiplied by a negative always results in a positive, but in the business or social world, a negative action multiplied by a negative response almost always leads to a negative outcome.

Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios?

Despite our experimentation as children in regular interactions with loved ones and answering questions frankly without hesitation or fear of ramifications, something happens in the acculturation process as we get older. As adults move through their careers, many become vulnerable to any question that might need a yes or no answer. This digression in the cognitive capability is a result of not knowing how or when to say "no" without feeling guilty or getting sick. Being uncomfortable, or the possibility of making someone else uncomfortable, appears an insurmountable barrier.

When 'No' Is Your Answer, Don't Let Others Convince You Otherwise

Responding "no" to a question might be a simple matter when choosing multiple options or when confronted with an accusation of some sort. "No, I didn't do it" is easy to say. (For some people it is easy even if they did do it, but that's a different topic.) The difficulty arises when asked to help or volunteer on a project, support someone's ideas or projects (especially when a friend is asking), take care of a neighbor's dog or cat while the family is gone, or when asked to participate in an activity or forum that might be helpful to your team or others but not necessarily to you.

Often, our first reaction is to please others by showing our support, especially if they are members of our team, friends, or people whom we care about. Saying "yes" then becomes a default, our defense mechanism, to show that we are on their side and fully support them. We often feel obliged to respond in the affirmative to avoid a negative perception from our family members, peers, colleagues, or neighbors. Sometimes we feel compelled to say yes to improve our self esteem and validate our status as good citizens and decent human beings. It becomes a knee-jerk reaction that may have an impact on our work performance, our reliability and credibility and at times our family obligations. Furthermore, after we make the commitment we may realize the potential to negatively affect present and future work or that we aren't actually convinced that the task we reluctantly agreed to complete is worth doing. The repercussions of our answer with a non-studied "yes" might prove harmful to us.

It is important to remember that you have a right to say no. If you don't, others may take advantage of you, take you for granted and even lose respect for you.

The 1-2-3 Method

Let us then offer the 1-2-3 solutions to our "no" dilemma. First we have to understand that the problem of judging when, where and how to use "no" is just a symptom, not the disease. The real issue is to have a clear understanding of what is being asked of you, the total expectations, the time commitment and who else is involved.

1. Understand the question before you answer.

  • Do not say "yes" for the sake of yes. The affirmative response to a question or a request is a commitment to another individual or group. It must not be taken lightly. Most successful business people will share their secrets: They are focused, they understand the value of time. Once they commit to doing something they would almost never cancel. That commitment you're about to make may conflict with your priorities and your ability to meet your goals and objectives. It is preferable to acknowledge that you will not be able to fulfill the request asked and answer with a negative than to put yourself in a situation that might affect you and your objectives and goals. You have to be truthful to yourself.

2. Know how to respond, but do respond!

  • Answer the request. Be polite but firm. Never ignore or dismiss. Do not assume a "no" response will be understood. For sure, the lack of a response will not be appreciated.
  • Be clear, concise, and direct. Get to the point. Do not answer with a question, an epistle or a speech.
  • Be assertive, not apologetic. It is your decision. You're in control. Take a shot or pass it.
  • Offer alternatives and or possible solutions. There is often some alternative to us, no matter how indispensable we think we are. Look for and help find a solution, but only if you can afford the time and effort.
  • Stand your ground. Assume positive intent, but be prepared for all possibilities. You may find that the person requesting your help is using techniques that take advantage of your weak side. Do not fall for that!
  • An example: Your next-door neighbors are leaving the next day for a 3-day vacation and ask that you feed the family pets while they are gone.

Don't Say: Where do you keep their food? Or do I need to walk them also?

Instead, say: I wish you had given me more notice; I, unfortunately, am not able to help you with this request. Have you checked with our local kennel or pet sitters?

Why this is important: Your neighbor should have given you several weeks' notice. They did not show respect for your time and you shouldn't taken on their burden. At the same time, you're offering a potential solution and while sending them a message that you want to help but you need time to plan.

3. Follow through. If you passed and said "no" but offered an alternative, follow up to see if that proved helpful. If you answered in the affirmative, ensure that you are aware of all the relevant information regarding expectations, dates and times.

Saying No At Work -- Can You Do It?

Up to now, we've focused our column on how to say no mostly in social situations. But what would you do if your manager at work makes what you would consider an unreasonable, urgent request? Although the same tactics may not apply, the same principle does: You are (mostly) in control.

To help you manage these often awkward situations, we recommend another 1-2-3 method.

1. Understand what is being asked of you and put it in the context of everything else you may have on your "to do" list. Understand the time constraints and expected outcomes, timelines and deadlines.
2. Negotiate if needed. Remind your manager that you are working on other projects that she has already identified as top priorities and ask if this new task has priority over the others. You may offer suggestions for options ("I can't complete it by Friday, but would Monday work for you? "Can I enlist the help of Jorge and Heather on the project?").
3. If little or no flexibility is forthcoming, point out that you will complete all tasks, but perhaps not as thoroughly as your manager may be accustomed to expect from you. Never say that you will "try" to do it. Do it.

When You Are Doing The Asking, Frame The Question Correctly

Finally, let's not forget that one reason we struggle with our answer to a request is that the person asking has not made it easy for us to respond with a "no."

Given that, we recommend that when you're asking someone for his assistance, make it as easy as possible for them to say "no" if they wish to. Consider this: You may not want someone helping you who doesn't really want to.

An example of an effective request may be: Are you interested and free to speak at my next conference? If you aren't, perhaps we can discuss opportunities for the following conference or the one after that." By providing flexibility, you will get an honest response from the person you are approaching. No matter what their answer, however, make a habit of thanking the person for taking the time to provide you with a prompt response.

Remember, building your relationships is a long-term process, and the ultimate goal is to strengthen your network one person at a time. By making each person you deal with comfortable, you'll continue to build and strengthen your network over time.