How to Get Better at Saying ‘No’

Whether in our personal lives, or in an organisational environment, saying ‘no’ can be a challenging but important skill to master.

It can feel especially difficult (and risky) when saying ‘no’ to someone in a more powerful position (such as a boss or customer), but knowing when and how to say ‘no’ is an essential part of being an effective leader.

As a prevalent topic for me in my job as an Executive Coach, I have come to realise is it not the ‘why’ which is important – we all know the benefits of saying ‘no’ from time to time.

Amy Saying No

My Communications Manager Extraordinaire, Amy Cunningham saying “NO! We are NOT doing a blog on the importance of workplace doodling.”

The hard part is the art of actually saying ‘no’ i.e. how to do it, what words to use, and in what context.

Here are my 4 top ways to get better at saying no:

1.  Ascertain the importance.  Before jumping in with a response, think about how important the request for your time and energy is on the ‘scale of priorities’.  Ask yourself the following questions:

How integral is this task in helping to achieve my/our priorities?

Is this going to help move us closer to achieving our goals or strategy or is it a ‘nice to have’ that has the ‘feel good’ factor, but drags us away from what needs to be done?

2. If saying ‘no’ straight off is too hard, buy yourself some time so that you can consider it further, or ask more clarifying questions around time commitments and priorities.  A simple, “Let me think about it and get back to you” can work.

3.  Eliminate something else. If the task is of integral importance, then something else will need to go.  Saying something like, “I’m currently working on project X and Y, however, if you feel this new project is more important, are you comfortable with me prioritizing this over the others or prefer we consider other alternatives such as assigning this work to someone else?” can work.

Communicate the fact you can do it now, but make sure you discuss what cannot be done at this time – or should be delegated to someone else.

Letting go of something from the priorities list will help to reduce the likelihood of increased stress levels, errors, and producing unsatisfactory results.

4.  If it has to be a yes, ask for a due date.  It seems obvious but one of the mistakes I have made before is creating my own artificial deadlines.  Rather than saying “I will have that done by…” instead ask “When do you need this by?” On occasions where I have presented my own somewhat unrealistic deadlines, which I have then struggled to meet, I have found if I had simply asked, I could have bought myself a few more days – and a whole lot less stress.

The art of saying ‘no’ takes time to fine tune, and as with all leadership attributes, the first time we do it can seem awkward.  But by pushing through the Red Zone,  we eventually become comfortable with being uncomfortable – and in the end, it’s a win/win for everyone involved…including the person you are ‘saying no’ to.

Do you find it challenging to say ‘no’?
Do you have any tips in mastering the art of saying ‘no’?

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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