Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 1;   January 1, 2003: Saying No

Saying No

by

When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the group toward joint problem solving.

If she had a choice, Robin would have gladly elected a root canal instead. But there she sat, with most of senior management bearing down on her. They wanted a simple "Yes, I'll make it happen." But she just couldn't say that.

Instead, she said, "I don't know how to get it done by then, and more money won't help. I'd propose instead that we find another way to meet their needs while we get this done."

Virginia  Satir's Yes No MedallionSilence, as everyone waited to see how Warner would react. He gave her that famous glare, but Robin was prepared. She stared back.

"What did you have in mind?" he asked.

Robin knew immediately that she was home free, because instead of blaming and intimidating, they were now problem-solving. She had used one of several workable techniques for Saying No to Power. There's always a risk when you try it, but a risk of upsetting Power by saying "No" now is almost always better than the certainty of upsetting them when your placating "Yes" implodes a few months from now.

To help you stay centered
as you say no,
use "I" statements
To feel good about saying no, start by feeling good about yourself. Then adding the no is a small step. When you say no, you're just stating the truth as you see it. To help you focus on this centered approach, use "I" statements as you say no. Examples:

I don't know how to do that.
If you honestly don't see how to do it, it's better to let them know now than it is to have them discover it later, after you said you could do it. Remember, your limitations are not yours alone. If you don't know how to do it, there's an excellent chance that nobody does.
I can't do that by the time we need it. Could you help me adjust some priorities?
Another way to say this one is, "Sure, I can do that, but it would have to be instead of something else that's less important." Then the two of you can negotiate priorities.
I don't know how to meet that date with the schedule we've already accepted from our supplier. Can we get those components from them any earlier?
Now the group is problem-solving a critical-path schedule issue. Perhaps someone in the room can work this issue better than you can.
I don't know how we can meet that date. What would happen if we were a week late?
This moves the discussion to a question of the target date. In most cases, a one-week delay is OK, so this is actually an exploration of the boundary of "OK."

As you practice, you'll find your own ways to say no. Coming from you, your own no is almost always safer and more powerful than someone else's yes. Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Projects  Next Issue

For more on saying no, see "Saying No: A Tutorial for Project Managers"

For a survey of tactics for managing pressure, take a look at the series that begins with "Managing Pressure: Communications and Expectations," Point Lookout for December 13, 2006.

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIKLhvFFLQYYiJIPoner@ChacxsYGNokxRSXXAQXQoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A P-14 lady beetle devours a pea aphidWorkplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in ChicagoSome Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks
Groups sometimes make mistakes based on faulty reasoning used in their debates. One source of faulty reasoning is the ad hominem attack. Here are some insights that help groups recognize and avoid this class of errors.
Elia Kazan, award winning film directorOn Snitching at Work: I
Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work. Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerHistorical Debates at Work
One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
Srinivasa RamanujanLinear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're other than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution.

See also Conflict Management, Effective Communication at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Passing the baton in a relay raceComing January 24: Understanding Delegation
It's widely believed that managers delegate some of their own authority and responsibility to their subordinates, who then use that authority and responsibility to get their work done. That view is unfortunate. It breeds micromanagers. Available here and by RSS on January 24.
A serene mountain lakeAnd on January 31: Nine Brainstorming Demotivators: I
The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions. Available here and by RSS on January 31.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenDMltwjxDplAbXDGDner@ChacaTdlbstUEujeneJzoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.