7 Ways to Say No Without Making People Mad

businesswoman-with-raised-hand-Erika-AndersenSaying “no” too often can be hazardous to your career. I first realized this many years ago when the general counsel of one of our client companies got fired for being “too difficult to work with.” It wasn’t surprising to me when I heard that he had been let go – for months I had heard his colleagues and his boss complaining that his standard response to any request was some version of no — “We can’t do that,” “That wouldn’t be prudent,” “I don’t see how that’s possible,” “You don’t understand the negative implications of that,” etc.

I was coaching the CEO at the time, and when we spoke afterwards, he told me about the situation that, for him, was the last straw. The senior team really needed to figure out a way to modify their agreement with a key vendor, and the GC just kept shooting down his colleagues’ ideas without offering any of his own. Finally, the GC just said, “I don’t think there’s any way to change this.” Frustrated, the boss called a lawyer who was a friend of his, explained the situation to her, and asked for some ideas. Two hours later, she called him back with three possible approaches. The CEO fired the GC the next day.

Find the real problem – Fairly often clients ask us to do things that we believe won’t serve them well…and that’s a particularly awkward situation in which to say no. What we’ve found over the years, though, is that generally they’re simply proposing an untenable solution to a real problem – and if we can understand what the problem is, we can offer a better solution. For example, a few years ago, a client asked me to facilitate a session with her junior employees to figure out how to restructure the organization. I was pretty sure they didn’t have the perspective to come up with the best solution, and that their bosses (and bosses’ bosses), the leaders of the company, would feel undermined and angry having to implement a less- than-optimal solution mandated by their employees. Instead of telling her I thought it was a bad idea, I asked her what she trying to accomplish. She was very clear: she wanted to give the junior folks some voice in their destiny, and come up with fresh ideas about structure. I then suggested that we use the junior group as a source of fresh ideas: Ask them to brainstorm about possible changes in the structure to better serve the business’ goals. Then we could take those ideas to the senior team and facilitate a session where they would be tasked to incorporate the best of them into their decisions about restructuring. Problem addressed, and not a “no” in sight.

Offer an alternative – I suspect we’ve all been at the receiving end of a customer service “no” that sounds like this. “We don’t do that/provide that/have that.” Period. You know how frustrating that is for you; I encourage you to do your best not to inflict it on others. If you can’t fulfill a request, think of and offer other people or organizations that could fulfill it. Offering someone another place to look is a time-honored approach to great customer service, as portrayed in the famous line from Miracle on 34th Street: “Macy’s doesn’t have that particular toy. But tell your parents that Gimbels has just what you are looking for.” You can use the same approach when dealing with colleagues, as in: “We don’t collect that kind of data. Have you tried calling Allen in research?” Your “no” immediately turns into a helpful suggestion.

Negotiate — Sometimes a “no” can turn into a “yes” if the other person is willing to modify the request or do something in return. Let’s say that your boss asks you to start working on a new project, and you know it’s not possible (given 24 hours in a day) to keep your other projects on track if you have to add this one. Instead of saying, “I don’t see how I can do that,” or “That’s not feasible” — negotiate. For instance, you might say something like, “Is this new project a higher priority than project X? Because if we could slip the deadline on X by just a few days, we can fit in this new one and get it done just when you need it.” Or let’s say that what will make the new project difficult to accomplish is that your boss doesn’t respond when asked to sign off on intermediate steps. In that case, you might suggest an exchange of efforts: “We can add the new project if we can expedite all the projects we’re working on. By responding to our sign-off requests the day you receive them, you’ll make it possible for that to happen.”

Summarize first — Sometimes you really do just have to say no. But there are three important ways to make that sting less, and to make it less likely that it will hurt the relationship. The first is just to summarize the request. Often the worst part of getting a “no” is feeling as though the other person didn’t even take the time to understand the request. If you listen carefully, and then restate the essence of what the other person is asking… well, it still won’t make the other person happy, but it will be a whole lot easier to hear the “no” that follows. Here’s what that might sound like: “You’d like our department to stop checking these reports before they go out: You feel it’s slowing down the process.”

Say why – Once you’ve summarized their request, and they’ve said some version of “Yes, that’s what I want,” then, when you offer your “no,” also share the reason behind it. And be careful not to fall into the work version of “because I said so” – which sounds like “because that’s our policy,” or “because I’m the boss.” That feels terrible to the other person; like you’re just throwing your weight around. Think a bit more deeply and come up with an actual reason. That might sound like, “I’m concerned that if we stop checking the reports, there could be mistakes that would affect important decisions.”

Apologize and offer to do what you can – And finally, when you ultimately say no, express your regret and offer to move as far in the direction of their request as possible. That lets the person know that you’d like to accommodate them, but simply don’t believe that you can. It also helps them understand that, even though you can’t fulfill this particular request, you hope to be able to fulfill the next one. Saying no in this way makes it clear to the other person that you will support them in whatever way you can — you just can’t do this particular thing.

So, here’s how an excellent “no” can sound, one that includes a summary of the request, your rationale for not fulfilling it, and an apology and commitment to do whatever is possible. “You’d like our department to stop checking these reports before they go out: You feel it’s slowing down the process. I’m concerned that if we stop checking the reports, there could be mistakes that would affect important decisions. I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid we’ll need to keep checking them. We’ll do everything in our power to make that checking process as speedy as possible.”

Don’t say no when you don’t have to, and say it in the best way possible when you do – and those around you will see you as hopeful, collaborative, supportive and clear.



Erika Andersen

Erika Andersen

Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients' challenges, goals, and culture. She and her colleagues at Proteus focus uniquely on supporting leaders at all levels to get ready and stay ready to meet whatever the future might bring. Much of her recent work has focused on organizational visioning and strategy, executive coaching, and management and leadership development.

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