Monday, 5 March 2018

Tactics for Saying No

Isn't it amazing how hard it can be to say "no" to someone! Because it is hard, I think it can be useful to practice HOW to say no, and set up some stock phrases and strategies for making "No" statements. 

A few years ago, we had a couple of Rotary International Exchange Students come to stay with us. Their entire approach to life in New Zealand was to say "yes" to everything. That strategy got them past fear and into a whole load of new experiences. However, while saying "yes" in the short term is going to get us exposure to the new and push our boundaries while travelling, in the workplace it is more likely to burn us out and cause us to fail in our main job.

Saying yes can get us to the point where we are so stretched that we struggle to do the job that we were hired to do: and that is not only unfair to ourselves, but also unfair to our employer (because they will get an unrealistic idea of how much work can be done in the time) and unfair to those who follow us (who will never be able to live up to our legendary do-er status). 

A lot of us have FOMO: fear of missing out. Another problem is that we want to be the 'good' person who helps. Both of those issues cause our mouth to overtake our brain, and we rush in and say "Yes" without thinking how the new tasks will work with the rest of our load. So below I have eleven tips:
  1. When asked to pick up a new project that is outside our area of expertise, or that really leaves us cold, say "I am in the middle of [x] projects right now, so I can't make a decision this minute. Give me until 3pm to review where I am at, and I will come back to you then." We are expected to make instant decisions, so many managers will be surprised at the postponement. However, this tactic buys us some time to think through the project and our response: and to propose someone more suitable, instead of doing something that doesn't fit with our skill set. A good "no" answer might be "Thanks for asking, but I have reviewed my current projects. I can't take on that additional responsibility at the moment, AND continue to give my other projects the attention and energy they need."
  2. When asked to pick up a new project when you are very busy, say "I'm a bit busy to do that right now, and I wouldn't want to let you down. Why don't you see if you can find someone else, and if no one is available, I'll step in as backup." Probably half the time, people won't come back. If we think this might come back to us, move to tactic 4. 
  3. When asked to pick something new and undefined up, before giving a "Yes", say "Sure, no problem. Who ie preparing the project brief, and when will I get it to review?" We wait until the project brief is passed to us. That way we don't get a poorly scoped and amorphous project that will become bigger than Ben Hur, and, therefore, impossible to complete or hit targets for.
  4. When asked to pick something new but not clearly resourced, say "Sure, no problem. How many hours will that take? I suspect it will be about [x]. What should I reprioritise?" You don't pick up the new project until you have downgraded an equivalent amount of hours. That prevents you trying to do two jobs.
  5. When asked to pick up a well-briefed project up, say "Sure, no problem. I will need to pass [y] from my worklist to someone: how about Kim in Facilities? Can you let me know when Kim's Manager agrees, and we can have a hand-over meeting?" You don't start the new project until Kim's Manager approves the shift. That way you don't end up with two jobs.
  6. If someone asks you to do something for them that will take you a lot of time, but them very little, such as brokering connections, say "Sure, no problem. Send me a couple of background paragraphs which I can include with the email." It is more than likely that they won't do their bit, and our problem goes away. If they do, our part should be nice and short. As Yevaru said, "Just asking people to do a bit of work to crystallise their vague idea of what they want so that you can do far more work to make it reality, is apparently too much for a lot of them". 
  7. When someone asks us to do a professional service for free, a musician had a great response, saying "Yes, sure, I'd love to! Usual 7 day payment terms, and who should I address the account to?"
  8. If someone puts a guilt trip on us by saying, "Well, if you won't do it, Kim in Facilities will have to, and she has four young children at home," we can respond politely and directly to what was spoken without acknowledging the subtext; for example "Thanks for undertanding. Good idea about Kim, but perhaps you could give her a day in lieu to help rebalance her family time?" For those who say "But you are the only one who can help me!" we can go back with a "Oh, that's not true: you are a really capable. Let me know how it works out!"
  9. Lucy suggests that we prioritise requests into saying 'yes' in decreasing strength of yesness to fit with our core role for "the things that I (a) have to do, (b) want to do, or (c) ought to do". Lucy was ambivalent about whether we should do the 'oughts'. They could be passed to someone junior, who is in need of more challenging tasks (Kellaway, 15 June 2017).
  10. She says that we need to practice saying 'no' quickly. She feels if we procrastinate, we may "already [be] on [the] back foot and maybe tricked into saying yes by mistake" (Kellaway, 15 June 2017).
  11. A last tip from Lucy is to not get too specific on reasons, because "they can be challenged, resulting in capitulation” (Kellaway, 15 June 2017).
Hopefully these will help us learn to say know with a bit of grace, and without a meltdown.




  1. Seems like quite a 20th centuryproblem and approach for those of us who are self employed and juggling the needs of various contacts and the organisation's different admin methods. However like the approach to pro bono work.

  2. Seems like quite a 20th centuryproblem and approach for those of us who are self employed and juggling the needs of various contacts and the organisation's different admin methods. However like the approach to pro bono work.

  3. Yes: I think you are right. It is a modern problem!


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