The Simple Guide To Saying No

Andrew Weaver
May 5, 2023

“When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself” – Paolo Coelho

Why, despite a mountain of work and deadlines, despite knowing you have to leave at 6pm to watch the Avengers movie with your pals and despite dropping very large hints like “I’m under quite a bit of pressure at the moment, kind line manager”… is it still sometimes difficult to say no?

Instead of the word ‘sorry’, Elton John should instead have sung “No seems to be the hardest word”, because that’s the truth for many, particularly at work and particularly when trying to get on.

But if you want to transition from team player to tech leader then you have to build a thick skin as the pressure on your time only intensifies as you rise into those senior roles.

So how can we deliver a positive “no”?

Why We Struggle To Say No

Because sometimes it’s a lot easier to say yes, there might be an imbalance of power within the request being made and fundamentally, people are quite nice to each other and the instinctive reaction is often to say “yes”.

Saying “no” instinctively feels like a negative, a barrier being put up and with the risk of a particular relationship being tarnished.

We also struggle to say “no” for fear of being misunderstood, of hurting others.

Big thing for start-ups and entrepreneurs is that the fear of saying “no” is linked to the fear of missing out on an opportunity or hedging your bets on more than horse.

And for some people, whilst being sure that “no”is the right word to use, become anxious about to deliver it and in what tone.

Losing The Fear Of “No”

No matter what the reason you’re worried about saying “no,” it’s fundamentally rooted in worrying about what’s going to happen when you make the denial.

Will people still like you?
Will you miss an important opportunity?
Will you appear lazy, carefree, or incompetent?
Will you tarnish an important working relationship?

Being assertive about what “you” need is not a negative, indeed a confidence about your boundaries and a focus on what you have to deliver, will be recognised and should be applauded.

To say “No” is not a form of expression of superiority; it should form part of a professional and honest working relationship, one cemented by mutual respect and understanding.

The Art Of Saying “No”

Like everything else in life, the way we talk can be far more important than what we talk about. Basic social skills tell you that an abrupt and hostile “No” is unlikely to win you many friends.

So here’s your quickfire guide for saying “no”;

1. Say “no” without saying “no”

Learn the art of diplomacy. Offer sympathy for the request and perhaps offer to help another time but now, you have to focus, you have to finish, you have to leave. Leave “no” at home.

2. Be honest, it’s much easier long term

The more you say yes, the more likely you’ll end up in a situation of complete overload.
The art of saying “no” is often down to the respect you build up within your team. If you’re recognised as a valuable member of the team who is able to deliver on a realistic workload, then honesty and a gentle response is a winner.

3. Understand what’s within your capabilities

Either in terms of time or expertise. It’s a risk to keep piling up tasks. Even more daunting if it’s not really in your key skill set.

4. Whatever happens, never apologise.

Oh no, you’ve been there. “I’m really sorry but ….”
Truth is you’re rarely going to be sorry turning away that request for some late night data input.
Firm but fair. That’s our motto for delivering the “no”.

5. What about the boss?

Surely my boss is going to receive preferential treatment when it comes to the “yes” or “no” question?
Well, yes and no (see what we did there?).
Clearly your line manager needs to be handled delicately but ultimately they should be your key supporters and if they’re a half decent manager (we know some of them are not) then he or she will recognise and expect you to be honest about it.

6. Being pro-active 

If you find a pattern starts to emerge about people or situations where extra demands are made of you, pre-empt and head them off as best you can. Post clear signals about your capacity – within a positive feedback environment. 

7. Be humble and see if you can create space another time 

Much of this comes down to your ability to communicate, with care and respect for others. Those seeking your help might be under severe pressure themselves and rather than being overt, are shouting out for assistance. Very rare you can’t find some common ground to help. Team dynamics and success is built around how you work with each other and very much, how you communicate positive and negative news.

8. Create the right culture, Work for the right company

 If everyone is aligned and communicating clearly then this article is fairly moot. Managing high performance teams is not without its challenges but as a core principle you should expect “No” to become as much a part of that winning dynamic as “Yes” as the team storms, forms and norms its behaviours and expectations. You need to be working and/or leading a team who don’t have to overtly worry about issues like this. When moving into tech leadership roles, from scrum master to team lead to CTO, it’s your responsibility to build a culture of honesty and respect.

We started with a Paolo Coelho quote that was about you being true to yourself and your instincts.  For the individual, the art of saying “no” is often bound together with the art of understanding yourself, who you are and where you should be.  

The wonderful Brene Brown … “true belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be able to be who you are”.

Be who you are, work with the right team, around great people and you will have created a natural mechanism to deal with the “yes” and “no” question.

Further Reading : The Art Of Saying NO: How To Stand Your Ground, Reclaim Your Time And Energy, And Refuse To Be Taken For Granted (Without Feeling Guilty)

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