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The Art of Saying ‘No’

The Art of Saying ‘No’

Entrepreneurs have to know when and how to say ‘no,’ and be good at delivering the message. All startup leaders are besieged with requests for their time, attention, talent, money, or influence, and sometimes even good requests won’t fit into the time and energy you have available.

Startups require focus, so you need to say ‘no’ to some things, in order to do the important things well. This is really the principle of displacement, which dictates that everything you do rules out other things that you don’t do. It’s impossible to do everything.

For most of us, having to say ‘no’ somehow feels like a rejection, so we hate to do it. Instead, too many entrepreneurs just say ‘yes,’ and regret it afterward. So here are some tips that I have accumulated over the years that can help you say the right thing the right way:

  1. Give yourself time to think. Before responding with an enthusiastic ‘yes’ that you never meant, or a cryptic ‘no’ that will ruin a relationship, ask for time to mull it over. It’s acceptable business practice to say that you need to check your calendar first, or pass the request by other principles before deciding. Commit a date for the final decision.
  2. Explicitly evaluate the pros and cons. First, make sure you understand the full implications of a simple yes or no response. Every ‘no’ answer reduces the likelihood of another opportunity along the same lines, while every ‘yes’ answer increases your workload and the probability of burnout on your long list of critical items.
  3. Listen to your gut. Sometimes we say ‘yes’ because we love the excitement of a new idea, when our instinct is telling us that it implies many complex issues that we are not prepared to deal with right now. It’s a fact that our brain often stores relevant information that we might not be able to vocalize right now. Trust your judgment.
  4. Negotiate a return consideration. Often people asking for favors don’t realize or consider the cost, so you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for a reciprocal favor. It may make that person re-think their need for your help, or you may actually get more than you give.
  5. Make the ‘no’ a function of your constraints. Emphasize that the rejection has more to do with your priorities, budget limitations, and workload, rather than any inherent flaw in their request. In this context, encourage a return discussion as some specific point in the future, or with some specific variation.
  6. Lead with positives when saying no. Mute the sting of rejection by rewarding the person for being aggressive and creative, while not directly accepting the contract or proposal. It may even be appropriate to give some reward, such as access to an alternative opportunity, or recognition in front of peers, to encourage the source.
  7. Pick the right time and place. Pick the least stressful time of the day, or a private place where you can talk sincerely, and give full attention to any questions or discussion. Watch your body language and tone to eliminate the guilt and fear that often make the ‘no’ response harder on the sender than the receiver.
  8. Be logical, calm, and concise. Choose your words wisely to avoid confrontation and a defensive or emotional reaction, but make sure the answer is clear and understood. No one wins when you say ‘no’ so softly or ambiguously that the other party reads it as a ‘yes’ or even a ‘maybe.’ Skip the detailed explanations.

People have learned the art of asking, so you need to learn the art of saying ‘no.’ Rid yourself of the fallacy that you must say ‘yes’ to be viewed as a leader. If the request presents a moral dilemma to you, your code of ethics should allow you to refuse, rather than lie to the other party, or agree to something you can’t deliver. Just say ‘no,’ and smile as you say it.

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Original Publication DateFebruary 14, 2011
Related categoriesLeadership

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