Essential Skills: How to Say No

In our Essential Skills series, we highlight key workplace and life skills to achieve your goals. Today, learn how to say “no.”

How many people have you talked to who regretted saying “yes” to yet another commitment? I can see you nodding now – and maybe you’re also that person who says “yes” to everything.

When you always say “yes,” you’re giving control away to anyone who asks for it.

You’ve probably read that the more difficulty you have saying “no,” the more likely you’ll burn yourself out and get depressed. I’d venture to say that loss of control can have a psychological impact and hurt your actual effort to follow through on new commitments.

Essential SkillsChoosing When to Say “No”

So, how do you say “no?” (Especially after I just wrote 500 words about how – and why – to say “yes?“) Here’s how:

  • Decide what’s important to you – Say “yes” to that and “no” to everything else. Just remember that the definition of what’s important can be expansive and slippery. A particular project or role, on its own, might not be interesting or desirable to you. Where it might get you – or who you might meet and what doors it might open up – may be important. Also, you might want to do something that’s not important to you, but is important to someone else. You don’t need to be calculating and Machiavellian about these things, but you should know what you want to say “yes” to, and what you want to decline.
  • Say “no” to things you can say “no” to – You don’t always get to say “no.” Think of those sorts of questions where “no” is not really an acceptable answer. But when you can safely say “no” – and you want to – exercise your option.
  • Give someone else a turn – There are two kinds of commitments: There’s an internal commitment, which is something within your declared personal scope (as a professional or a parent, for example), and there’s an external commitment, which is something where you extend yourself. When an opportunity or a request comes up that’s an external commitment, keep in mind that maybe it’s someone else’s turn for that exciting opportunity. Someone else might be a better fit for that commitment than you are. Step back and give them a chance.
  • Be clear, be firm – When you say “no,” just say “no.” “Check back with me” and “maybe” sound an awful lot like “yes.” What’s more, in personal situations, keep the reason for your answer to a minimum. If you give someone too much explanation for why you’ve said “no,” they may take that as an opportunity to negotiate. My personal favorite is my father’s answer: “I have a commitment.” That’s all someone really needs to hear.
  • Say “no” when you NEED to – When I worked at Andersen Consulting, there was an unwritten rule that you got to say “no” to a new assignment once – ever. Your reason was your own – travel commitment, poor fit for the role, personal issues to be dealt with – and nobody would ask about it. So, when it really mattered, you could play that card. If you tried to say “no” to something big twice, Andersen figured you didn’t really want to work there. Point is, there are times you really need to say “no” and that’s exactly what you should do.

In the end, saying “yes” or “no” isn’t about following some constant rule for behavior. Constantly saying “yes” can drive you nuts, while constantly saying “no” makes people around you wonder what you’re doing there.

Making your choices is about fitting into your environment, finding the way to contribute in the best way you can, and respecting others when they make their own choices.

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John KackleyTechnological Innovation has spent more than 25 years as an IT professional and management consultant in our Chicago office. He has worked in nearly every industry and business functional area, engaged in numerous technologies and methodologies. John typically plays the role of project manager and technical or functional lead for teams, delivering new processes and tools to support business.

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