How to Say No Without Saying No.


I struggle to say no. I’m supposed to be better at it. I know that it’s important. I know that if I don’t stay focused where it matters, everything suffers as a result. I know this. So do you.

But I still struggle. I agree to take on more responsibilities. I take on more requests and sign up for aggressive deadlines. Before long, it becomes unsustainable. I then need to choose between ignoring half of my work or doing a poor job on all of them. Yeah, not great.

Worse, apparently it’s killing me. The World Health Organization recently released a study showing that working long hours is killing hundreds of thousands of people a year through stroke and heart disease. Their global analysis showed that in 2016, some 745,000 people died as a result of working at least 55 hours a week. So yeah, not great there either.

I’m hoping you’re not in this situation, but it’s a common struggle. We don’t like to tell people no. And the more that we blur the lines between work and everything else, the more difficult this becomes.

We want to be helpful. We want people to like us. And we know that deep down, no one wants to hear us tell them no.

When you tell someone no, it puts up a wall. It makes you look uncooperative. It invokes an emotional response and suddenly you’re no longer reliable. They can’t count on you.

We struggle to say no, because we know that people don’t want to hear it.

So don’t say no. Find a better way.

In her bestselling book, BossypantsTina Fey describes the core rule of improv comedy: Always say “Yes, and…” meaning, always agree and move the conversation forward. Accept what someone tells you as truth and then continue to build on that reality. Never say no, which brings the scene to a halt.

If your scene involves dealing with a terrible boss, don’t say, “No, we’re getting ice cream.” Where does that scene go? Say, “Yes, and now Ellen has even more free time to make our lives miserable.” It adds to the scene and creates more opportunities for humor. It also builds trust and rapport between the scene partners. In the wise words of Malcolm Gladwell,

“Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action.”

The basic concept of “Yes, and…” is that you’re open to new ideas and you’re willing to go along with them. But you also need to add your own perspective and input. This same concept applies to dealing with new requests.

Don’t try to automatically decline everything and don’t blindly accept every new action. Respond with “Yes, and…”. Focus on understanding what the other person is trying to accomplish. Then identify alternatives that you can support.

The other day I asked one of my engineers to put together a new analysis by the end of the day. He said that he could give me a bullet point summary by then. Or if I’d could wait until the following afternoon, he could deliver the more detailed analysis. What would I prefer?

He offered alternatives and put it back on me. He used “Yes, and…” instead of simply saying no, and reminded me that if I want a quality product, I need to give him the time to provide one.

Too often, we agree to do something because we’re unrealistic about what we can actually accomplish. We take on too much, do a poor job, and look bad in the process.

We accept new responsibilities, hope it will all work out, then suffer when it inevitably doesn’t.

Without that realistic conversation, we don’t set the right expectations. We breed resentment and end up damaging our relationships.

“But my boss doesn’t want to have that discussion,” you might be saying, if you’re the type of person who argues with Medium articles. Well, tell her anyway. If your boss wants to bury her head in the sand, don’t condone it with your silence. Offer your honest perspective or you’ll be just as culpable when you inevitably fall short.

The statement, “Yes, and let me tell you what that would look like,” rarely fails to open up a realistic conversation.

If your boss wants something done today, let her know what that will take. Maybe you need two more people to help perform research and analyze the data. Or if she’s okay waiting until tomorrow, you could handle it with minimal support. Again, lay out the alternatives based on what you can realistically accomplish. And then let her make the choice, just now on your terms.

Most requests don’t need to be done by you specifically. When someone asks you to do something, they largely just want to cross off a task on their own to-do list. They need to get someone assigned to it, the sooner the better. You’re less of a unique resource and more of an unchecked box.

Depressing? A little. But the good news is that you’ll get much less resistance in nominating someone else. If it’s a worthwhile job, you can suggest someone whose career would benefit from the opportunity. If it’s less desirable, consider someone competent but underutilized. As long as you’re helping them assign someone, the requester will likely appreciate your input and follow that new lead.

It’s just another version of “Yes, and…”. Understand what they’re trying to accomplish and give them additional options to support. You avoid the work and help them out in the process.

Maybe you have a good reason for pushing back. Maybe you don’t. But the moment you start to explain, you turn it into a negotiation. The other person’s thoughts immediately focus on how to counter those explanations.

Someone once asked me to oversee an event. I told her that I wished I could, but I was already taking the day off to spend with my family. It turns out she had the date wrong and the event was a week later. Suddenly I’m on record as saying I’d like to attend and now no longer have a conflict.

Apologizing, likewise, is a trap. The moment you apologize for not supporting someone’s request, they see you as in their debt. It’s ridiculous, but that’s how psychology tends to work. You’re now someone who they can approach in the future and they’ll likely push harder on the next action. At the very least, you’ve ensured several more requests that you’ll need to avoid again.

Of course, plenty of requests that don’t even warrant a response. Questions that could be answered by a quick Google search don’t need warrant a reply. Requests from those who’ve made no effort to do the preliminary work aren’t worth your time. Nothing says you need to respond to every request that comes in, particularly unsolicited ones. The delete key is all the response you need.

You’ve likely heard the big rock analogy, but bear with me for a moment. Think of your time as a jar, with your biggest priorities as rocks and the minor items as pebbles and sand. Filling the jar isn’t exactly rocket science — start with the big rocks, then the pebbles, then the sand. Then maybe pour in some beers for good measure.

Everyone is convinced that they do this well. They all start with the big rocks, then add the pebbles, then let the sand fill in the cracks. I was too. Until I started to track my time. The truth was that my jar was full of pebbles, sand, and other people’s rocks. My own rocks were laying on the side of the jar.

We all want to be helpful. We want to contribute to others and be seen as dependable. But simply accepting new responsibilities does a disservice to everyone — you most of all. It fills your jar with other people’s rocks instead of your own. It spreads you too thin so that you can’t do a quality job on anything.

It’s not that you shouldn’t help others. And it’s not that you shouldn’t agree to new work. The important thing is to make this a conscious choice. Be realistic. Offer alternatives. And make sure if you’re agreeing to something, it’s on your own terms.

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