It’s NOvember, the month where I provide 30 days of things to say NO to if you want to be happier, healthier, and more productive. Join the NOvember crusade by sharing your thoughts on my LinkedIn post or by checking out my daily 60-second video shorts.
Do you love the idea of saying “no” but struggle with getting the word out of your mouth without upsetting someone, triggering an argument, or being labeled as a poor team player? Do you fantasize about some bolder version of yourself that can toss off a “no, nope, no way, not-over-my-dead-body” without breaking a sweat? I can’t promise to get you to that point, but I hope I can give you some tips that will make it easier for you to enforce some boundaries, graciously.
How to Say No
The first thing to consider when saying “no” is that no comes in many different versions. Which one is appropriate depends on the nature of the request and whether what you’re resisting is the idea, the approach, or the timing. Here are a few of the different flavors of “no.”
For the sake of the explanation, let’s take a specific example. Imagine you work for a prepared food company, and you’ve been asked to prepare a presentation on the value of entering a new market—school snacks.
Not Worth It
One possibility is that you believe investing energy into researching and reporting on the school snack market is a bad idea. Your traditional market is microwavable meals, and your core strengths are on reheatable frozen foods. School snacks are a different consumer, a unique manufacturing process, and a different category in the grocery store. If your “no” is a definitive, complete, nuh-uh, not-at-all no, you might want to help the requestor come to the same conclusion.
Approach: Use questions to help them arrive at their own no. “What makes you interested in school snacks? What capabilities do we have in that space? What would it take to win in that category?”
Form of No: I don’t think this is the best place to invest our energy right now.
Assist: If you’re interested in broadening our product mix, what would be segments that match our brand spending, our manufacturing capabilities, and our current distribution relationships?
Another possibility is that you think the idea has merit, but the timing is off. Instead of a definitive “not ever” form of no, this one is more of a “not yet.” Maybe you’ve just acquired a company that makes microwave meals and school snacks, and you’ll have to decide whether to divest or double down.
Approach: Inquire about where the snack research fits with other priorities. “We’ve just made the acquisition and have many pressing questions about the dinners category. Jacinda has asked me to research what to keep from that portfolio. Where does snack food fit relative to the importance of the meals research?
Form of No: I think the meals research takes precedence.
Assist: I would be happy to delve into this as soon as I finish the meals presentation at the end of the month.
It’s also possible that the request is legitimate, but you’re not best positioned to do the work. For example, you might know nothing about the snack food category or nothing about market research. In this case, it’s not a “not ever” or even a “not yet,”; it’s a “not me.”
Approach: Probe the requestor’s desired outcomes and the skills required to do the work efficiently and effectively. “Snack is a general grocery, and my whole career has been frozen aisle. How is that category different? What knowledge or experience would be important to understand the school snack opportunity fully?”
Form of No: I don’t have the expertise to do this.
Assist: I would be happy to reach out to a few folks in the acquired company and see who would be great for this.
Not All of It
Some requests contain a mix of things you want to say “yes” to and a few things you need to decline. This is the time for a partial yes in the form of “not all of it.”
Approach: Be clear about what you will do and then switch to the appropriate strategy based on your rationale for saying “no” to the other components of the ask. For example, “I am happy to get right on the market research and come back with a competitive analysis on the school snack market. What’s the decision-making process after sizing the opportunity for whether we move to product development?
Form of No: I will wait to do the product line work until there’s been a review of the competitive analysis.
Assist: Match the assist with the form of “no” you used.
- Not Worth it: Offer an alternative solution.
- Not Yet: Give a date when you could help.
- Not Me: Source someone else to assist.
There’s one final category of nos that is worth mentioning. Sometimes you’re willing to assist with a request only if the person can do something to facilitate it. This is a job for “not unless.”
Approach: Share your interest or desire to assist with the request and then be transparent about what is getting in the way of you saying “yes.” “I would love to dig into the school snack category. At the moment, Jacinda has asked that I look at the dinners product line. If you could help me speak with Jacinda about reassigning that work, I would be excited to join the snack project.”
Form of No: Until we can get Jacinda on board, I have to stay focused on the dinners project.
Assist: Do your part to remove the barrier, and if the barrier can’t be removed, offer up a time when you could help, an alternative resource who could help immediately, or a small section of the project you would be able to do even if you have other priorities.
With apologies to my friend JoAnn, who reminds me that “no can be a full sentence,” most of the time, spending a little time and energy on declining work gracefully is well worth it. When someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, can’t do, or can’t prioritize, take the time to frame your “no” in a way that makes you look professional and helps them accomplish their goals.
What are your magic words for saying “no?”
How to get things done when you aren’t motivated
From HBR: How to Politely Decline a Meeting Invitation