When to Say Yes to a “No”

Shutting down an idea you don’t like is part of a leader’s job, and it can be done easily if you think about what you’re saying “no” to. But are you doing the same with your “yes”?

“No” is a four-letter word.

Or it seems to be, given how much we struggle with saying it in the office. We want to be supportive of ideas, but we also have limited resources—and, well, not every idea is a good idea. And yet, no leader wants to be perceived as the person who’s shutting down a conversation.

Some recent research suggests that not only should leaders get more comfortable with that occasional “no,” but that it can go down a little easier with some thought about how you’re framing it. A New York Times article last week, “Why You Should Learn to Say ‘No’ More Often,” explores some of the latest research on the topic. The Journal of Consumer Research, for instance, recently prescribed delivering that “no” in the form of “I don’t” instead of “I can’t.” The former suggests you’re standing firm; the latter suggests you’re open to negotiating, even though you may not be. That distinction is not a small thing: It certainly sounds more authoritative to say you don’t allow more than one staffer from each department to come to a retreat than to say you can’t do it.

What frightens leaders about these conversations is that they expose our lack of reasoning or principles.

The article also recommends having some “anchor phrases” at the ready for those awkward situations. (“I don’t make decisions about charity donations over the phone,” for instance.) This echoes much of the advice that Fast Company delivered on the topic of “no” last summer. There are “hard” nos of the “it’s not a good fit” or “we just can’t afford it” variety, the article points out, as well as “soft” nos, where you’re leaning strongly toward rejection. “The key to delivering an effective ‘soft no,’” author Rich Bellis writes, “is to convey the reasons for your skepticism and explain what information you’ll need to give a firmer answer.”

And that sensibility was further echoed in a 2011 Associations Now article on saying no. “We exist to serve our members, so when a member asks for something, you don’t want to tell them no,” said Becky Granger, CAE, in that story. “But our job is to provide the most impactful items to our members, so we have to apply a critical lens and select what makes the most sense.”

It strikes me, reading these various articles about our struggles with “no,” that what frightens leaders about these conversations isn’t so much that they’re afraid of being perceived as negative so much as they expose our lack of reasoning or principles in a situation. All the good advice experts offer about saying “no” ask us to develop firm ideas for the reasons we’re putting up a roadblock—and to express them in ways that are not only logical but that navigate the inevitable hurt feelings that come along with being denied something. None of which is easy.

(I’ll tell a quick story on myself to illustrate. A few weeks into a new job as an alt-weekly section editor, my boss informed me that I was developing a reputation as a “Mr. No,” because I’d been bluntly rejecting or skeptically questioning story ideas that had been coming my way. Part of my error was bringing an overly deliberative attitude into a culture that was used to a looser, more let-it-fly approach. But the bigger error was that I simply wasn’t doing a good job of explaining the rationales behind every “no” I delivered.)

There’s a flip side to this problem with “no” that ought to give leaders pause: If we’re so casual and rationale-free when it comes to what we say “no” to, what does that say about the things we’re saying “yes” to? We give our approval for all sorts of reasons that have little to do with whether an idea is any good or not—it improves a valuable relationship, it avoids a fight. And it can be just as hard to apply the same rationale to the yes as we do with those nos.

It may be a comfort, then, to realize that your “no” is probably not going to be perceived as badly as you think. According to the Times story, Columbia University researchers have found that “our perceptions of our own assertiveness are often unreliable. In mock negotiations, people who thought they were adequately assertive or even over-assertive were seen by others as under-assertive. So if you feel confrontational, there’s a good chance the other party doesn’t see you that way.”

That’s good news for when we have that difficult “no” to deliver. But it may also pay to think a little more about how and when we say “yes,” too.

How do you deliver that dreaded “no” in the office? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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