When I posted a list of quotes on prioritization and saying no, I was surprised how quickly it became my most-viewed post of the year. I obviously touched on a nerve. I also received more than a dozen emails about the post; most of them went something like this:

I want to say no to things but I don’t know how. And I want to do it politely.

It’s a fair point. After all, the word ‘no’ is – by definition – negative.

In my experience, people have trouble saying no and usually provide noncommittal answers like “I’ll see if I can do that” or “Let me get back to you”. These answers often mask the fact they already know they can’t or don’t want to do something. Rather than stringing someone along, it would be much better to offer a clear ‘no’ immediately. As Tom Friel said, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’”

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown suggests you need a repertoire of ways of saying no which you can tailor to the specific situation. Here’s my assessment of McKeown’s eight ways to say no:

  1. The awkward pause.
    If you count to three before answering no, the requestor is likely to assume you’ve given the request careful consideration. Sometimes, the requestor might even retract the request.
  2. The soft no (or the “no but”).
    This can be an effective technique if you are clear you cannot agree to the request as framed but you could agree if something changed (perhaps at a later date or a smaller time commitment).
  3. Use e-mail bouncebacks.
    One of my colleagues turns on his email “out of the office” notification when he’s feeling particularly overwhelmed, even though he’s not out of the office. This way he’s not expected to respond to any requests – at least not quickly.
  4. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
    I found multiple people (examples: here and here) who recommend this technique but, as previously mentioned, I don’t think it’s a good idea – you shouldn’t create an unnecessary delay when you already know the answer.
  5. Say it with humor.
    This can be tricky as humor is interpreted differently across cultures and nationalities. But if you want to try it out, this article has some unusual ideas including “sorry, I’ve got a Friends of Rutabaga meeting.”
  6. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.”
    This works well when you would like to provide some support for the request but not in its original form. Rather than saying what you won’t do, you instead say what you are willing to do. As an example, if someone asks for a ride, you respond: “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.”
  7. Suggest someone else instead.
    When someone asks for help, they don’t necessarily need the help from you specifically. Often there is someone else better suited to provide the help than you are.
  8. Ensure the request is the appropriate priority.
    Many employees don’t know how to say no to their boss or don’t even think they could. But saying yes to too many things could jeopardize your ability to do well on any one of them. If you are overloaded, when you are asked to do something additional, respond with something like “Yes, I would be happy to do so. With my other commitments, I’m not sure I have time to do as good a job as I would like. Can you help me decide what I might be able to deprioritize?”

In my personal life, I would respond well to either #2 or #7. And, as a senior leader, I believe #8 is an appropriate reaction to one of my requests. I don’t mind helping an employee ensure they are working on the right priorities.

How do you say no?

This blog was originally posted on Manage by Walking Around on August 16, 2015.