I’ve been embroiled in an ongoing debate with a friend of mine about saying “No” to co-workers. It all started when I sent him a link to a post on the Brazen Careerist. I sent it to him because he is always telling me how busy he is. I specifically wanted him to see the part about saying no. Last week he wrote a blog post about our exchange.
The interesting thing to me about his post was that he had equated saying ‘no’, which to me is about managing your workflow and your time at your job, with denying someone else something he had. At work, what he would be denying his co-workers is his time, which seems to be in short supply. Still he insists that in order to keep things running smoothly at work, he can’t ruffle any feathers by telling them no.
The thing is, he does tell them no all the time – he just doesn’t use the word. He tells me, he tells his co-workers, “Not now, we’ll talk about it later.” This reminds me of a talk by Mary Pergander. One thing that she said that has stuck with me, is “feel your inner NO”. She recommended let it really build up inside before you deliver a calm, but forceful “No.” Her point was that there are a lot of times we mean “No!” but feel that, like my friend, we can’t just say “no”. So we offer a weak response, like “I’ll try to get to it later.” or “Send me an email about it.” and hope it will go away.
This creates several potential problems for you. First, an honest “no” saves everyone time in the long run. I once had a co-worker call me 4 times in a hour, just to follow up on something I told her I would look at. She only relented when I finally told her that no, I couldn’t do it now, that she would need to work with my boss to add it to the priorities. My friend tells me that in similar situations he would call a meeting to discuss the proposal. I find it very difficult to believe that he has a meeting for every proposal people bring to him – but that could explain why he is so busy. Not to mention that I’ve known him long enough to know that he is very capable of delivering a “no” without uttering a word.
Which brings me to the next problem. When your mouth says “yes” or even “maybe”, but the rest of your body and your subsequent actions say “no”, you may not be communicating as clearly as you would like or as clearly as you need. If you are saying, “I’ll look at it later” and hoping the issue will go away, you may find yourself back doing the same duck and weave with that person next week or sooner. You may also find yourself involved in a project that you simply don’t have time to work on.
If you still aren’t comfortable with saying “no” at work. William Ury, the author of Getting to Yes, has more recently published a book, called The Power of the Positive No. In it he explains how to give a positive no. It’s been awhile since I read the book, but I’ll sum it up as:
- Understand why you are saying no. Is it time constraints? Are you stretched too thin at work? Do you have a vacation coming up that will interfere with progress on the project?
- Be graceful about your no. Work is political. You can’t just say no – and in most cases it is completely inappropriate to use the classic “it’s not my job.” At home we use a modified version, “I thought you could do that.”
- Make your no a consensus no. Get the person on your side. Although you have to say no, try to negotiate an acceptable no for both people.
Ury calls this process a Yes, No, Yes. First you say yes to yourself and your reasons for saying no, then deliver the no, and finally you negotiate the other person’s yes to your no. For the third step, it may be necessary to provide alternatives, like “I can’t do it this month, but I will have time next month. Can you wait?” or “I can’t do it, but I heard that so-and-so is interested in a project like that.” Of course, these alternatives need to be sincere. Deflecting work to someone who isn’t actually interested is only going to make more enemies.
Saying no is an important tool. Everyone has more to do than they will ever get to. To take control of your job and your career you need to make active choices about what you will and won’t do. Which is not to say that we should only do what we want to do, just that we need to know why we are doing something. We need to know that it is moving us closer to our goals.