Just Say No – It’s Not As Easy As it Sounds

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? A friend asks you to serve on the board of a local nonprofit, but you really don’t want to spend another evening each month away from your family. A client asks you to make a financial contribution to a cause you disagree with. A co-worker asks you to take over a project, and the increased workload will mean many late nights and weekends at your desk. A supplier invites you to a party, but you know it won’t be the type of entertainment you really enjoy.

How do you tactfully and gracefully decline, without feeling guilty–and without damaging a relationship you value?

It’s not that we’re wimps or doormats, but in most cases, we feel guilty when we say no to a request. Sometimes that’s because we feel pressured to make decisions without complete information, or we believe saying no is the “wrong” answer, or we feel we have an obligation–real or imagined–to the person making the request. Regardless of our motives, the consequences of saying yes when we should have said no can range from mildly annoying to seriously damaging.

So how do you say no when it’s the right answer? Actually communicating the message of no is the second step of the process. The first step is making the decision. Be very certain that not doing whatever you’ve been asked to do is appropriate, then convey that in terms the other person can understand.

Don’t let someone rush you into a decision; tell them you need to think their request over, and that you’ll get back with them by a specific time. If they can’t wait, then explain that without time to carefully consider the request, you must say no.

If after sufficient contemplation you decide that no is the best answer, take the time to explain your reasoning. For example, if you’re just too busy to take on another project, explain that obligating yourself to something else will mean less than your best not only for that issue, but will also take away from your existing responsibilities. If the request would create a conflict, explain your feelings. Making it clear that your decision has been carefully thought out will take a lot of the feeling of rejection out of your response, and help you stick to your resolution.

There may be times when saying no is the right thing for you to do, but you’d still like to help. Depending on the situation, you may actually problem-solve with the other person. If they’re making a legitimate request, and if they’re a fair person and somebody you really want to help, but it just isn’t appropriate for you to do what they’re asking, you might want to say something like, “I can’t do this, but let’s talk about what you’re trying to achieve and maybe I can help you in terms of getting it done.” Then talk about ways they can get the results they want without you having to do it.

For most people, saying no is a skill that takes work to develop. Review real situations you’ve experienced and figure out how you could have handled them better. If you’ve decided to turn down a request, consider boosting your confidence by rehearsing what you’ll say ahead of time. If you don’t let others impose artificial obligations on you, and you have confidence in your decision-making process, you’ll be operating from a position of strength.

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