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What to say instead of “NO”

If you have a hard time saying “no” at work, try these ideas

The modern leader is constantly bombarded with ideas, suggestions, requests, questions, and complaints. Each one must be handled quickly, fairly and precisely – in some cases there isn’t much room for error, and in other cases the feelings of the other or one’s self-image make it hard to refuse or say the dreaded “no”.

How can you maintain your good relations with colleagues and team members without jeopardizing the quality of decision-making?

The answer is to decide on the outcome and then work on the messaging – how to break less-than-optimal news to the other person.

Let’s talk about some ways to say “no” without the damage that it can cause to team dynamics.

1. Contingency or Timing

Everyone appreciates that timing is of the essence and multiple factors are always at play. Formulating that some other decisions (e.g. company budget) need to be finalized (and also go our way) before you can support the request is a reasonable way of saying you like the idea, it’s just a matter of waiting for the right moment and conditions to execute on it.

Caveat – If your excuse isn’t relevant or if it’s used too often, this can become transparent, and break trust. However, if the team is aware of the calendar and major events, and you’re upfront that things might go sideways, this is easy to enforce.

2. Authority: Not in my hands

This is an old favorite – “I’m just the messenger” – passing along the bad news from management, making it possible for you to say if you were in a position of power, you may have been able to help more.

Caveat – Reduces our perceived authority on a relative basis, and some people may feel emboldened to go “over your head” the next time. To prevent this, you can be transparent about decisions you can make and those you can’t, and enforce lines of communication to prevent unpleasantness.

3. Feasibility: Not possible

The shortest end run is when we have objective metrics that allow us to say no without any personal elements getting involved – not enough time, not enough money, not technologically or legally possible, etc.

Caveat – Most decisions are more a matter of relative value or a mix of objective and subjective. You can lean on the objective numbers to an extent, but may have to add on layers like “strategic priority” to push things over the edge.

4. Mixed answer: Yes and No (Yes to part of it, No to part of it)

Though we’d dearly like to avoid long-drawn out discussions, sometimes it really is “it depends on…”. You may find the problem or concern valid, but not the solution. Or there’s part of the solution that works, other parts need to be finessed, or the concept may work, but the execution doesn’t. In short, the longer conversation may be the way forward. Regardless, the goal is to collaborate on a more complete answer to the problem or the execution of the solution.

Caveat – This approach, obviously, takes more time, but it may be worth it to foster collaboration and engagement. Just keep an eye on the clock.

Closing thoughts: When should it just be a NO?

You will notice that all the above techniques work ONLY if the leader is as transparent and upfront as possible with the team members. While saying “no” is something we want to minimize, that can never take precedence over trust and authenticity.

In fact, there are some situations when you may well want to say “no” – if enforcing discipline, or a learning moment, or if the pathos between you and the other establishes that “this is not personal”, i.e., both are direct-communication-style personalities.

In the end, avoiding saying “no” is not about avoiding pain to the other, it is about fostering a work environment that is collaborative, learning oriented and yet being upfront about the reality that life and work are complex, so sometimes, answers are just not that simple.

So the next time you get bombarded with questions at work, don’t dread saying “no”, just say “yes”…to a great conversation.


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