Saying ‘No’ Without Causing Hurt, Offence or Consternation!

Saying ‘no’ is an important skill. It’s essential for self-care and has powerful protective capabilities. It preserves your energy, your resources and your time, and leads to a more satisfying and resilient life at work and at home. But it’s something that plenty of managers find hard to acquire, and people pleasers find it trickier than those of us who are less invested in keeping others happy. Luckily it’s a skill you can learn. Here’s how to harness the power of ‘no’ to enhance your working life.

How to let more ‘no’ into your own working life

Before you can let more ‘no’ into your life, you need to be able to recognise the circumstances where a refusal is entirely appropriate. Say someone has come along with yet another project, a piece of extra work, an alternative new idea, and you are already at full capacity. You instinctively feel really uneasy about it, and feel pressured to day ‘yes’ on the spot. They might try heaping the guilt on you in the hope you’ll agree. Some people are masters at this technique of persuasion, often those involved in hard selling. But trying to force someone to say ‘yes’ is nothing more than manipulation,  And that alone is often a good enough reason for saying a firm but polite no.

It’s important to buy yourself time and space to think about whether or not to say ‘no’. Don’t just fudge around with ‘maybes’ or ‘mights’ or ‘perhapses’. Ambiguity only adds to the challenges of an already difficult conversation. It can be helpful to develop some bridging statements – more about those later. And keep an eye open for ‘shoulds’. If they’re fuelling your response, the blue light of duty might be flashing or your natural ‘rescuer’ personality may be kicking in, and there’s no reason why you have to sit back and let either of them have their way.

While it can be tough to say ‘no’, it helps when you have a firm grasp on your own mind and values. Once you’ve worked on these with an experienced executive coach you can bring it to the fore a lot more easily. Saying ‘no’ may feel briefly awkward. However, it can save you from the longer-term chronic pain toll that saying ‘yes’ results in. That is the cumulative overwhelm or burnt out you feel further down the tracks.

It also helps enormously to learn to deal with other people’s disappointment. After all, nobody ever died of being mild and temporarily disappointed! It’s usually much better to save your sanity by getting the disappointment over as early as is respectfully possible. When you pull off the elastoplast early on and as fast as you can, you usually cause less offence. Once it is off, there tends to be fewer mixed messages given out and less conflicting assumptions or spurious future expectations taking root in the conversation.

Help saying ‘no’ to the people you work with

It’s also important to be very clear that it isn’t the person you’re rejecting, rather it is their request. Taking a deep breath and then framing your explanation carefully will count. Put yourself in their shoes and take care with your tone and how you let them down. As gently as possible will be the best you will have to offer in this scenario. Stating explicitly it’s their idea, the opportunity they’re presenting, the project they want help with or the invitation they’re giving your are declining – not them personally. This is especially important when you’re dealing with a close colleague, someone you’re friendly with. And there’s no need to over- accessorise your rejection with lots of reasons why. Don’t protest too much. Be kind in your response, succinct and straightforward with your reasoning. Standing your ground in this way keeps you steady and determined. From this quiet, calm place others have more opportunity to match your emotional tenor and respond accordingly.

Last but not least, if the decision is an organisational issue, clearly state the business case for it and separate yourself from the no decision. That’s the secret to successful no-saying… your argument will almost always be stronger when it’s impersonal, with your excess feelings stripped out and the facts and reasoning presented clearly and professionally.

About bridging statements – Softening the emotional climate

We mentioned bridging statements earlier on. Here are some examples, revealing how you can be respectful and buy yourself some time and more information if you need to do so, before deciding to say ‘no’. You seek to gain greater understanding from the other person – while still holding your own ground.
These types of statements enable you to build a bridge between you and the other person or group when personal differences are affecting a conversation. They’ll help you slow down your communication, steady your reactions, and hear other people more easily by softening the emotional climate.

  • “I am interested in your reaction to this situation as I do not share it. Can you explain more please?”
  • “Help me to understand please, the thinking behind the comment / decision / reaction / feeling / action that you have just made.”
  • “From your perspective what happened to cause ‘x or y’? I am interested in hearing your viewpoint here.”
  • “What do you see as the key issues that underpin this issue?”
  • “Thank you for the feedback. It was encouraging, and I appreciate you are taking the time to 
let me know.”
  • “Thank you for the feedback. It was hard to take, so I will need some time to think it through and assimilate the implications.” 

  • “I come from a different angle here and have not considered this aspect. Can you give me some more detail please?”
  • “I do not seem to have had all the information here. Can you fill me in please?”
  • “I have a strong reaction to what you are saying – can we just step back here? I need to 
understand how you reached this conclusion. Please tell me what made you react like this?”
  • “I see that you would think or feel ‘x’ if that’s what you thought was going on, or you heard that news. There’s more to this situation than you realise, though. Would you like me to fill you in?”
  • “I had no idea that people reacted like this to what I did / said. I didn’t intend to x or y. I apologise. What do you think I need to do here to improve the situation?”
  • Whereas I realise that feelings are running high here, as your manager I need to make the decision. It may be hard for you to take on board but it is the company’s policy and I need to endorse it. How can I help you to move forwards in the circumstances?”
  • “We seem to be stuck finding a solution to the problem here. Let’s come back to it after a short break or do some more thinking, then return with some fresher thinking on date / time.

Statements like this can defuse a situation that’s getting all hot under the collar, refocusing the conversation towards inquiry rather than blame. The bridging statements provide you with more of the backstory and context data and you still say ‘no’. You might though choose in the light of new facts to say ‘yes’, but either way you will do so in a more informed way.

Saying ‘no’ with more skill

If you’d like professional support to improve in this area and in how to handle different types of management conversations, do get in touch.

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