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Soften the Blow of “No”

As human beings, we love approval. We want to be liked, seen as a team player. But despite our desire to be helpful and show our value, never saying no can rapidly lead to decreased quality of work, frustration, anger and eventually burnout.

Some people seem to have the innate ability of gracefully turning things down without causing a rift, hurting feelings or coming across as selfish or disinterested. Here are five great ways to hone your own skills of saying no:

  • First, get your own head right. Put the idea of saying no into a shifted context that is actually saying yes to your own ability to succeed at what is already on your plate. When we think of saying no, we typically view the response as being negative—but if by saying no you the have the opportunity to better manage existing priorities or even take on something more meaningful, that is very positive. You’re not letting others down when declining a single request, you’re potentially offering more by being able to stay on task with the most important, higher impact responsibilities.
  • Before saying no too quickly, take a moment to consider what is being asked of you. Let the other person know that you will circle back with them after you’ve had a chance to weigh the feasibility of fitting it into your other responsibilities and have a good idea how long the request will take to fulfill. You may decide you DO want to take it on, or if you don’t, you have a better ability to explain to the other person why it’s not going to work for you. Through your assessment, you may also discover that someone else on your team is better suited to support the request—and you can help facilitate gaining their help.
  • Saying no to your boss feels scary, so reframe your no in a way that shows you are engaged and committed, but your plate is full. Give a quick rundown of what you are focused on at the moment and ask for their guidance in setting priorities. There’s no need to be a martyr, and it is entirely possible they’re bringing you a request or project that does actually supersede what you’re currently managing. Follow up with some clear indication of what will take more of a back seat in the interim so there are no unpleasant surprises.
  • Don’t belabor the no. You’re super busy. Your colleagues are super busy. Your customers are super busy. No one needs to constantly hear how busy and overwhelmed you or anyone else is. You can say no while offering a brief explanation that is respectful and considerate without leaving everyone feeling exhausted. And while you’re saying no, acknowledge that you understand that by not taking on the request, you are likely placing the chore back into the other person’s hands. Sincere empathy helps soften the blow of no.
  • Let your calendar be The Enforcer and allow it to quietly say no for you. If you actively set aside a portion of your day or week to tackle things that are not your top priorities, you have a better chance of staying within the confines of what should be a reasonable amount of time for working through one-off requests and busy work. Don’t keep your scheduling strategy a secret; if you tell others you manage extra requests this way and it’s visible on your calendar, you gently teach them to be more respectful of your time. This can also help team members to see when it is a good time to catch you for quick meetings.

At Milestone Leadership, we recognize leaders worth following know their own limitations and develop the capability of managing the expectations of others around them—both up and down the org chart. Great leaders also have the capability of recognizing when others need to say no and actively work to cultivate the kind of honesty and two-way communication that allows team members to candidly speak up. No is not a four-letter word!

Kelly Hale Syer
Associate 
Milestone Leadership

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