A Short Guide to Saying No for the Nice Guy (Gal)
Setting boundaries and being helpful is a tricky dance. Even the most skillful among us still feel like we have two left feet.
Perhaps it’s why articles such as this one resonated with so many. A lot of us are having a tough time figuring out what to say no to, and how to say them without coming off like jerks. So then at the expense of our time and energy – precious commodities that we can never get back - we say yes to things that don’t serve us and that left us overwhelmed and time-starved.
Why do we sacrifice our two precious commodities for this? A number of reasons, chief among them: 1) the perception that we are not in a position to say no, such as the case with our employers and clients, 2) people-pleasing, not wanting to disappoint people and jeopardizing our relationship with them, and 3) we like to feel important and needed.
For those wanting to get better at saying no, it truly boils down to two things: Knowing what to say no to. And knowing how to say it.
In this post, I won’t go too much into the “what.” There are too many factors such as priority, value alignment and individual enjoyment. Here’s my shortlist:
What to Say No To
Takers. It’s different if you know that the person asking for help is in no position to reciprocate. After all, reciprocity is different from quid pro quo. I’m talking about people with no understanding of give and take. I preserve my energy for those who can pay it forward when they are not in a position to pay it back.
Job Non-essentials. When I worked in corporate, I often said no to organizing department potlucks and after work happy hours. These things somehow turned into an event planning nightmare. Instead, I found it to be less fuss and less time-consuming to be bringing in bagels for team breakfasts or organizing small group lunches.
Energy Vampires. I am a big proponent for stepping outside your comfort zone. Yet, I recognize that some activities go against my natural inclination and prevent me from being at my best. I am not a big fan of networking events such as large conferences and workshops. I know they carry value, so I have learned to tone down my aversion to them. I set the number of events to attend per month and the minimum number of people to meet per event. Doing this no longer robs me of energy.
I treat non-work activities the same way; I learned what settings to avoid. I choose to meet friends where I am at my best and most relaxed.
How to Say No
People have varying levels of sensitivity. There’s no hard or fast rule when it comes to saying no. Tact goes along way. Here are a few ways that have worked well for me.
Point the way.
For most intelligent people seeking advice and help, all they may need is for you to point them in the right direction. If I don’t have sufficient expertise in the area, I share what bit of insight I have, cautioning them that it’s an area outside of my expertise, and then hand them off to the professionals.
Pass like a quarterback.
When people trust your opinion, they will often ask you to solve things completely outside your area of expertise. When this happens, take cue from football. The quarterback does not always run the ball. He will often pass the ball to a running back or a wide receiver who he believes is in a better position to score.
Say something along the lines of, “I don’t have expertise in that area, but I know so-and-so who does.”
Make it on your own terms.
Okay, so this is not technically saying no. If you are in a position to help and want to help but timing is bad, ask the person to circle back with you at a later time.
Use the Dilbert Tactic.
I call this the Dilbert Tactic after learning of it from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.
In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (Portfolio Penguin 2013), Adams gave the example of an obnoxious co-worker wanting to tag along on a client lunch. To not risk offending him, Adams advised you invoke the “I have a rule” tactic. For instance, you might say, “I have a rule of only doing one-on-one lunches with clients.” You don’t have to offer a reason.
What effective ways have you learned to say no?