But many times it's important to say "no" or at the very least "not yet". Overcommitting yourself is as bad a sin as undercommitting. Setting boundaries is critical to ensuring what you do produce is focused and of high quality. "Say what you're going to do and do what you say" is a creed I live by and one critical to success. It will build trust in you and "your brand" and through this will bring you power. Setting boundaries will also help you keep your sanity.
As important as it is to set boundaries this type of conversation can still be considered or easily turn into a confrontational one. Many people avoid confrontation. There are certain techniques to handling confrontational conversations to be discussed in a later post. The aim of this post is to turn a confrontational refusal into a cooperative and constructive way to move forward. So, how do you do that?
Here are the basic steps I've found successful in saying "no" to someone's request but remaining on good terms with them:
- Acknowledge the request head on. Don't beat around the bush. You want to make sure that you understand the request and ensure it is actually a request of you. (It would be embarrassing to say 'no' to someone who isn't actually asking you to do something. That's happened to me in the past! Misunderstandings happen. Let's minimize those.) Restating the request demonstrates that you've listened carefully and are in the moment dealing with the issue. For example if someone came over to ask you to create a presentation for them you could start by saying "I understand you'd like for me to create this presentation by the end of this week. Is that accurate?"
- Validate the need. You want the person requesting your time to know that you know this request is important. You want to treat both the request and person making the request with respect. By validating their needs you get the both of you onto the same team. It de-personalizes the next several steps. If you are on the same team it's not about personalities - it's about the best and most effective way forward to satisfy this important need while not distracting you from your priorities. Be empathetic to their need because tomorrow you may be the person making a request of them. Continuing the presentation communication example above you could say something as simple as: "I know this presentation is incredibly important and urgent."
- Decide if it's really a "no" or a "not yet" and prepare your response accordingly. In considering the importance of the request, your priorities, your existing commitments and your talents with respect to completing the request decide if you can take this on at all. If so, can you take it on in the time frame requested? If the answer is "yes I can do it but not in the time requested" make sure to figure out a commitment as to when you can offer to do it.
- State clearly your response. If it's a "not yet" share your time frame and ask if that works (and if it doesn't work then this may end up being a "no" in the end). If this is a "no" deliver the response firmly but at the same time empathetically and respectfully. For example, "Unfortunately I'm unable to fit this additional project in at this time. That's probably not the response you wanted to hear."
- Explain your response. This doesn't have to be elaborate but do give a reason. If it's due to a personal reason you'd rather not share you can keep the explanation high level. The requester doesn't have to agree with your response and explanation necessarily but it is your truth and the sooner that's acknowledged the sooner everyone can move forward and figure out how this thing can get done. I recall reading sometime back about an experiment showing that people are generally more receptive to messages if you give a reason even if that reason doesn't make sense than if you didn't give any reason at all and just delivered the message. Part of it is that it seems that our brains are programmed to be more open to messages and requests once we simply hear the word 'because' without actually hearing the rest of the reason. From personal experience I think this is spot on. Back to the example you could say something like: "Unfortunately I've got 2 other presentations to deliver in the next few weeks. When I work on presentations I want to make sure I deliver something high quality. To take on a 3rd presentation would dilute my ability to focus on producing a great end product. I would hate for you to get something substandard."
- Offer alternatives (this one is very important) Don't leave your requester high and dry. You've listened to them and empathized with them. You're both on the same team (in terms of this exchange) now. If it were your request being refused wouldn't you want to hear some tips on how to move forward? Of course you would! So once you've said 'no' immediately follow up with ideas on how the requester can proceed without your participation and still be successful. "Have you asked Becky or Mike to help you out? They are just as well-versed on this topic as I am. Perhaps I can send you a related presentation I did last year that you could use as a starting point or as a template. Would that be helpful to you?"
- If possible offer to initiate the alternatives. Building off of step 6, actually spend a little energy and get that person started on the alternatives you suggested. This is a little 'extra credit' but very powerful. Perhaps you can arrange an introduction to someone that can help with the request or perhaps use Google to quickly point them in the right direction with data they need. If you've offered to do something make sure you go and actually do it and do it quickly. That way you can send them on their way and get back to focusing on what you need to do without having to worry about fulfilling a promise later. Step 6 and 7 together offer them a resource and path forward. If you don't leave them empty-handed they are more likely to remember this exchange as a helpful one rather than one where you refused to do something they wanted. (I've gotten away with this for years! ;) ) "You don't know Mike personally? No problem. Let me introduce you. I'll let him know how important this project is and let you take it from there."
Hopefully this offered some tips on how to turn a "negative situation" into a positive one! If you have other suggestions please leave them in the comments!