Saying ‘no.’ But saying it effectively…

Well, I must say I could have stayed in Ireland over Easter. Somehow the fact that it was so cold outside made staying inside with the Guinness even more attractive…

But duty calls – and on Wednesday I found myself having a very typical conversation with a Board member.

Sorted out my to-do lists over Easter, Ed
– And…
– They’re too long. Way too long. I got quite depressed
– So…
– I’m going to have to find a way to cut them down. I simply cannot keep on getting up earlier and earlier in the morning
– No, you can’t
– And there were too many jobs on there… I don’t know – that were there just to make me feel good
– Did they earn you any money or advance your business?
– No, none of them
– Well then…

In truth he knew the outcome of the conversation before it had even started. He needed to say ‘no’ more often – and the simple fact is that most people reading this blog will need to say ‘no’ more often.

I wrote the other week that certain business facts are fundamental, and they bear repeating over and over again. Saying ‘no’ is one of them – and we all need to be reminded from time to time. I’m certainly no exception to that rule.

The trouble is we all want to be liked and we all want to help people – and the easiest way to do that is to say ‘yes.’ And damn it, it’s nice to be asked. Whose ego doesn’t need stroking occasionally?

But you can’t do it. There are only so many hours in the day. You cannot go on “getting up earlier and earlier.” And there’s also the small matter of your family to think about. So you need to learn to say ‘no.’

But I don’t think that’s enough – I think you need to learn to say no positively, in a way that builds your authority and leaves the person asking actually feeling good about hearing ‘no.’ Here are some suggestions and phrases that might help you do that:

• Don’t ever give the impression that you might say ‘yes’ if you think the answer will be ‘no.’ If you’re not absolutely sure you can commit to something err on the side of saying no, even if you have to check first.
• Say ‘no’ quickly. Everyone likes a ‘yes’ – but a quick ‘no’ is infinitely preferable to a long, drawn-out ‘maybe.’ From everyone’s point of view
• Suggest someone else. “I’m sorry, it’s just not possible at the moment. But have you thought about asking …”
• “I’d love to do it. But I’m busy with my clients at the moment and I simply couldn’t do it justice.” I like that phrase. It builds-up, rather than diminishes, what you’re being asked to do. You’re not saying ‘no’ because you can’t be bothered; you’re saying ‘no’ because the job is important and demands more than you can give at the moment.
• “I’d love to do it but I’ve got some major commitments coming up that I need to focus my attention on…” That’s fine – again the job is important, but you have to prioritise your time.

I think there’s an interesting parallel here with the recent blog about having the confidence to promote yourself. Once you realise that you’re actually doing someone a favour by saying ‘no’ you’ll become much better at it. No-one gains if you are simply too stressed to think straight. So learn to be ruthless with your time and everyone will benefit.

To go back to a point I’ve made many times in this blog and to quote the late Stephen Covey: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is your business. Saying ‘no’ – but learning to say it effectively – may well be one of your most productive ways to build that business.


  1. easistreet · April 5, 2013

    Spot on Ed. And there are other reasons for learning not to say yes, particularly when a start-up has become a bigger business with a management team and the owner has been used to making the decisions. For example when someone else has already said no. It’s the old childhood trick of dad says no so go ask mum. Someone has asked one of your colleagues, who says no, so they come and ask you, knowing you can override the original decision. But by saying yes you undermine the authority of your colleague. John Barnett

  2. Steven Partridge · April 5, 2013

    I also agree, Ed. Agreeing to do something and then not being able to do it properly in a reasonable timeframe leaves all concerned dissatisfied. Often I will know somone else who may be able to help.

  3. Sarah Shafi · April 5, 2013

    Funny, I’ve just this very moment had a no from an agent…and it’s probably the most positive and uplifting no I have ever received! Still feel a bit crap about it but nevertheless my wrists are still in tact and away from my knife block! Bang on as ever Ed…

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