by Steve Adubato, PhD

Did you ever notice how good parents are at saying “no?” We say it to our kids all the time. The clichés around parents saying “no” are legendary; “No means no.”
“What part of no don’t you understand?”

Every day, we all have to say “no,” not just as parents, but as professionals in business. We say “no” to customers and clients, employees and peers. But there is a real art to saying “no.” It requires superior communication skills. The key is being clear without being cruel. But saying “no” in professional life is a lot harder than saying “no” for some parents.

Q—Why is it so hard for so many professionals to say “no?”

A—Most of us avoid confrontation. We feel saying “no” will get a colleague or customer angry with us. Since we all want to be liked, saying “no” can be really difficult. Also, we never really learned to say “no” without viewing it as something negative.

Q—Why is it so important to candidly communicate when the answer should be “no?”

A—If you are not candid, you can leave people hanging and waste their time. You can say “yes” but really mean “no.” You send really mixed signals, which confuses and often frustrates business associates and others. You also hurt people more in the long run if you are not up front about saying “no,” if that’s your intent. You raise people’s expectations and then cut them off at the knees when they least expect it. It’s also patronizing and disrespectful when you are not communicating in a candid fashion with people you need to build meaningful relationships with. Saying “no” is an important leadership and management skill that few have been able to master.

Q—What are some important tips or techniques when saying “no?”

A—Communicate in person if possible, as opposed to saying “no” over the phone or via e-mail. Of course it is more difficult to say “no” face-to-face, but it says a lot about the person who is willing and able to do it. It also shows respect for the other party, even if they don’t like the answer.

  • When saying no, explain how you feel. Own it. Build up to the answer “no,” don’t start with it. If you do, it’s likely the other person won’t listen after that.
  • Use tact. Instead of saying, “Your proposal stinks—we can’t use it,” try, “Your proposal doesn’t work with the direction we are going in, but I really appreciate the effort you put into it.” The key is to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. Easier said than done.
  • Seek alternatives or a middle ground if possible. “No” doesn’t always mean “no.” “No” can sometimes mean I can’t agree to the exact thing that you’ve proposed at this time, but I might be open to another approach.

Q—What about the people who won’t take “no” for an answer?

A—Stick to your guns. Respectfully repeat your rationale for saying “no” without getting frustrated. For example; “I would really like to buy this car, but our family budget just won’t allow us to do it. I appreciate the time you’ve taken.” But what happens if the car salesman says, “Come on, Bob, this car is perfect for you. You know you want it.” Respond; “You’re right, Joe, but like I said, it just doesn’t fit into our family budget right now.”

Finally, saying “no” while minimizing the fallout and building respect and trust in the workplace is something all of us need to work on. As always, write to me or call (973) 744-5260 with your feedback.