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How to say No

How to Decline Requests Professionally

James Huang | 2023.07.20

Some things you wouldn’t think you’d have to re-learn how to do as an adult. Next time you’re around a toddler, pay attention to just how early people get good at saying no.

As adults, we should be great at it, but we’re not. Saying no, especially at work, isn’t easy. It can feel like a failure — like we’re not being that "yes" person we’re supposed to be. The toxic message is that being a collaborative person requires you to say yes to whatever.

On top of all that, you may not feel like you have the authority to say no. Overly hierarchical organizations and those with trust deficits alike have a vested interest in convincing us of this. Decisions are for leaders, people, not for you.

The truth is that saying no is both healthy and necessary. The trick to doing it well is recognizing that yes/no is a spectrum, and the best no leaves the asker feeling like they got a yes.

There are three simple techniques for saying no effectively. Using them gives you power and legitimacy, promotes collaboration, and drives impact. Anyone can do it.

The Pain of No
If you think it’s hard to say no, try hearing it.

When someone asks you for something, they’re putting themselves out there. When you say no, even if you don’t mean to, you’re creating cognitive dissonance. And as a social psychologist, it can be like a flying kick to the psyche.

Delivering a "no" can feel like a flying kick to the face… unless you know how to do it right!
Cognitive dissonance is stress that’s caused by encountering something contradictory to your beliefs. Decades of research have highlighted the incredible lengths people will go to live in a stable and consistent world.

We make different choices, for example by seeking out specific people and information (see, e.g., filter bubbles and confirmation bias). We also rationalize and reinterpret messages to create the blissful consistent world we want to live in.

When you want to say no, you have all these powerful forces stacked against you. It’s not always a pretty or safe place to be.

But it gets worse. If we interpret no as a type of social rejection, research suggests that our neurological response can be the same as when we feel physical pain. So a no isn’t just a metaphorical roundhouse kick, it can feel like a literal one.


Why Say No
Are you apprehensive about saying no? There's no need to be. The reason for understanding how difficult it can be to hear no is to emphasize how important it is to get good at it. I am far from the first to argue this.

Among the many good reasons to say no, I will focus on just three:

Impact. Saying no to things that don't matter is how we work on the right things. Many requests aren't worth the time it took to make them, and effectively saying no helps us spend our time on the things that truly matter.
Avoiding burnout. Everyone deserves to be a co-pilot in their own workload. Sure, sometimes we all have to say yes to more than we'd like. But on a consistent basis, getting really good at saying no keeps us from burning out or spreading ourselves too thin.
Leadership. Contrary to what some may think, learning to manage no is a sign of strong leadership. You establish yourself as a productive, action-oriented person with ideas. You're generative, collaborative, and you bring people and ideas together.

Don't conclude from all this that you should meet every request with a brick wall. I've worked with plenty of (awful) people who thought that appearing smart meant undermining every idea that came their way.

In reality, you should almost never start with no. Be encouraging, engage, show interest and support. Remember that yes/no isn't usually a dichotomy, it's a spectrum. Your job is to make a decision about where on the spectrum you'll land, given their needs, your needs, and the context.

The Three Types of No

There are three types of no that work well in almost any situation. Next time you need to say no, try one of these instead. Soon enough, you will become a more active participant in all the decisions that surround you.

The Yes No

The Yes No is by far the most common strategy. You are essentially saying yes to the need, but no to the request. It all starts with asking questions that are not critical or skeptical, but rather open-ended and invite the requester to elaborate on why they are asking you for the thing. Spoiler alert – it is probably not for the reason you or they initially thought.

For example, let us say that an engineering manager asks for a fast turnaround research project that does not make sense at first. Once you have asked some questions, you find a way to integrate it into an existing project. Together, you agree on a quick analysis of a previous study to meet the urgent need. Although you will not be doing exactly what the requester asked for, they will leave the interaction feeling like you said yes.

Or maybe a PM approaches you asking for specific design changes. Although you have worked on similar changes before, you are hesitant to do it again. With more questions, you find out that the idea is from a new product director. The PM needs a win, and you have an opportunity for relationship-building. You put together a quick prototype of the previous designs and, together with the PM, present it to the new director, making you both look like heroes.

The Material No

It would not be a good idea to dig a hole with your bare hands, no matter who is asking. Reasonable people need tools and materials. Sure, get scrappy with what is available – there are many ways to dig a hole! However, asking for a backhoe when you only need a sharpened stick is a bad look, just as going at it with your fingernails is.

The simple trick here is not to say no at all, but to say yes with a reasonable materials list.

"Absolutely, I would love to help with that. Let us discuss what I would need to get started."

You might need a product specification or a product requirements document. You might need scheduled stakeholder meetings or a kickoff. You might need access to data or a budget. Or maybe the timing is off. You need to see next quarter's roadmap or the results of an ongoing A/B test first.

You have to be careful not to hold the request for ransom. It would be fantastic if every request came with an ideal set of materials, but that is not realistic. Sometimes, you have to do your best with what you have. But defining a set of materials that a project needs to succeed is just good leadership.

With The Material No, sometimes you end up doing the project, and sometimes you do not. That is okay! Usually, you either get what you need to be successful, or you seamlessly delay the project until it is obvious that no one needs it anyway. Win-win!

The Priority No

This technique is a simple tip of the hat to the laws of physics.

"Yes, I'm happy to take on that project. Which thing should this replace on the priority list?"

This approach transforms a request into a conversation about what's important, and is a hallmark of good leadership.

Of course, this method relies on having a priority list in the first place, which I highly recommend. Rank your work in terms of urgency and importance, share the list with stakeholders, and make sure it's strongly linked to things like roadmaps and goals. Update it regularly.

If you've done a good job with that, evaluating a new request in the context of your existing workload becomes much easier.

Despite all this, you'll probably still come across the dreaded "executive ask" - a request assumed to live outside of space-time because it comes from someone higher up on the org chart. Often this means you have to get it done, so it gets bumped to the top of your list. Everything else still gets pushed down. If someone doesn't like it, you can always tell them who to talk to!

A Real Live No

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you need to deliver a firm "no".

The most important thing is to explain why you're saying no. If you do so clearly and thoughtfully, the other party may not agree with you, but they'll usually respect your decision. The conversation may even spark a productive third idea that you can both own.

Be careful about when you use this approach, however. We'd all like to think the best argument wins, but in reality a "no" is a withdrawal. If your balance is already zero, delivering a "no" will leave you feeling like a sad panda in front of an ATM.

Remember, a well-delivered "no" can feel like a "yes". Practice these techniques, and when it comes time to deliver a real "no", you'll have plenty of balance to spend wisely.

How to say No
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