10 Ways To Say No Gracefully

Saying no with authority and grace is a lost art in leadership. It can lead to better results, better decisions and an improved quality of life. It also goes hand-in-hand with two other vital leadership skills – focus and discernment. Few of us do it well. If you struggle with saying no, here are 10 tips for putting it back in your vocabulary in a way that garners respect.

Find a more compelling yes.

When I meet with clients for the first time, I ask, “If you could spend your time any way you wanted, what would you do more of? Almost always the answer is, “I’d spend more time with my family.” Then I ask, “What would you do with that time?” You’d be surprised how often they can’t answer that question with any specificity.

That’s not because they don’t want to spend time with their families. It’s because they have not yet created a compelling vision of how life could be different. This is what I call the compelling yes. When you are clear and specific about what matters most to you, saying no to anything else becomes easier.

2) Deliver on your yes’s.

You need to lay the groundwork of respect and trust that gives your ‘no’ greater authority. When he was a teenager, our youngest son, Paul, was my ‘go-to guy’ if I needed help with anything. I knew that I just had to call down to the basement (aka “the man cave”) and ask. He’d invariably respond with a cheerful, “sure” and up he’d come to give me a hand. Now in his 20’s, Paul has grown into one of the most helpful, amenable guys I know… until he isn’t.

When Paul says no, he means no. I call it the “Wall o’ Paul” and when you hit it, there is no getting around it. While I don’t always like it, I respect it. Part of the reason is because his yes means yes.

3) Do it with jaw.

A strong no is not loud, belligerent or foot-stomping. It’s confident and unambiguous.

I once was asked to speak to a group of peers about how their habitual lateness to meetings was disruptive. I had no formal position of authority in the group, but I agreed it was a problem and so, I made the request. I was brief, matter-of-fact and I ended with a specific request. A few minutes later, one of the participants said to me, “You did a great job of that. You did that with jaw.” Sure enough, when the next meeting began, they were all in their seats five minutes before the start time.

Jaw became my new personal code word for self-authority. Jaw comes from confidence. When you are confident that you have the right and the responsibility to say no, you do it with authority and people respond.

4) Resist long explanations.

A no with a long explanation is a weak no. The explanation is often about your discomfort. It signals that you’re not okay with your choice and it invites people to try to change your mind. Or worse, it sounds defensive. Unless your explanation is simple and definitive – we’ll be in Europe that weekend or my dog just died – don’t waste their time and yours with a laundry list of reasons why you can’t possibly say yes. Most people just want to know, can I count on you for this or not? If the answer is no, they’ll respect you for being direct. If they need an explanation, they’ll ask for one.

5) Resist the urge to apologize.

An apologetic no is also a weak no. We’ve all done it. You put on your best apologetic smile and say “I’m so sorry, but I can’t do that. I feel so bad… etc. etc.” Now you’re not only saying no, you’re asking them to make YOU feel better. At best, it looks like you are asking for their approval; at worst, it’s insincere.

6) Pause.

Do you find yourself saying yes before you’ve given yourself a chance to think? Retraining yourself to pause before responding is good practice. Silence is uncomfortable and powerful and sometimes it will initiate a retraction of the request before you have to say a word.

Even if that doesn’t work, the pause gives you time to reflect – should this be a yes or a no?

7) Talk about the trade-offs.

If the request is coming from your boss, this can be tricky. A fair response is to respectfully remind your boss about the results you are trying to deliver and the impact that this request will have on those results. If your leader can count on you, he or she will be more open to a conversation about trade-offs. You and your boss may not agree, but at least you are highlighting the risks early.

Bosses are not always reasonable. They don’t always want to hear that you can’t do it all but it is always better to talk about the trade-offs while there is still time to choose.

8) Provide a strategic counter-offer.

The strategic counter offer is when you say no to one thing, but offer something else in return. “I won’t attend that meeting, but I will get you my input via email.” Or “I can’t do this for you, but I’d be happy to spend 30 minutes showing you how you can do it yourself.”

A good counter offer is ideal if a straight no is not reasonable or in your best interests. For example, if someone has done me a favour, I am hesitant to say no when the request for support comes back. So this is when I will look for a strategic counter offer. A really great counter offer is one that takes less of your time but delivers as much or more value to them.

9) Connect your no with your values.

When the yes’s and no’s in your life are based on your values, they have much more resonance for you and others. Are the compelling yes’s in your life a reflection of what you value most? Do the people and things that matter most to you get your attention or do they get put on the back burner? Are you driven by a clear sense of what matters? When you can answer yes to those questions, others will respect that.

10) Respect ‘no’ from others.

Leaders are uncomfortable with no. They often confuse it with negativity. They are not the same thing at all. It is important in leadership to make room for no; it often is the voice of discernment. Dissent, especially when it is coming from someone you trust, is a voice you need to listen to. Get curious.

Paradoxically, no is often the first step to commitment. Peter Block, an expert on creating community engagement and commitment, says “If we cannot say no, then our yes has no meaning.”

Surround yourself with people who are willing to say no to you.

What are your tips for saying no?

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About the author:

Cathy Jacob

Cathy brings a unique skill for deep listening, an unwavering belief in her clients and a gentle sense of humour to her coaching practice. She opened a full time coaching practice in 2004 and in 2009, she co-founded Fire Inside Leadership to expand the impact of leadership development and coaching in her community and beyond.

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