Not many amongst us enjoy saying "no" to someone else, or hearing it from someone else. It is, arguably, one of the most powerful words in our oral arsenal. In fact, its power is inversely proportional to its length. It is short, blunt and most of the time associated with aggressiveness. Even in negotiation seminars, it brings back memories of childhood when we were chastised, if not punished, for saying "no." Of course, it was used on us to set boundaries "for our own good." Then there are also the unpleasant memories from our high school years. Memories we would rather forget like not having a date for the prom, or not being picked for whatever team we tried for.
Interestingly, while most of us have trouble using the word, our gut has no such compunction. Most of us have experienced our gut screaming "NO" while our conscious mind agreed to whatever we were asked. I would surmise that most of us lived to regret our conscious decision.
The feeling arises from our childhood, and the fact that most of us feel obligated when someone asks us to do a favor, whether it be a work colleague, a friend or family member. Even when we do say "no" (e.g., to buying Girl Scout cookies, to the church donation basket, or even a door-to-door salesman), we end up feeling guilty. In fact, there is so much anxiety around the word "no" that most of us agree to do things we'd rather not, or simply don't have time for. At a time when we have more information (in fact, information overload), more options and we are asked to do more with less, the ability to say "no" is more important than ever. There are a few proven techniques from negotiation seminars to help you say "no."
First, realize that, in most cases, you have a choice. This is an important concept which requires us to think about our answer. In fact, after analyzing the situation as you learned in negotiation seminars, you may decide to say "yes" because it's what's in your best interest. However, you have actively thought about whether to say "yes" or..."no". You are no longer on automatic pilot.
1. Practice saying "no." It is often said that practice makes perfect. However, no matter how long or hard you practice, if you're doing it wrong, you'll only get perfect at doing it wrong! So you've practiced saying "yes" all your life and have gotten very good (perfect?) at it. It's time to practice saying "no" as you learned in negotiation seminars. The more you say it, the more comfortable you'll be and feel saying it.
2. Say it with gusto. When you say "no", say it firmly, with your head up, look into the other person's eyes and stand your ground. And repeat it if you have to. Which you will if you're saying "no" to someone who's used to hear you say "yes."
3. Watch your body language. It is well known that over 50% of what we "say" is communicated through our body language. While the way we stand and the way we talk are obvious, we also give subconscious clues (nodding our head, scratching our nose, clearing our throat, crossing our arms, lifting our eyebrows, etc.) which carry a message to whomever is talking to us. Avoid giving visual cues, such as "ahas" and nodding your head up and down, which give the impression that you are agreeing with the speaker. Keep your body language as still as possible, as you learned in our negotiation seminars or start using negative clues (e.g., cross your arms, shake your head from side to side, etc.).
4. Stand up. Next time someone stands over you while asking you to do something you'd prefer not to...stand up and then say "no." Standing puts you on an even eye level and creates a psychological advantage. By the way, do the same if you happen to have to say "no" on the phone. By standing up, your subconscious will send a different message to your conscious mind and you will sound and feel more assertive, as you learned in negotiation seminars.
5. Interrupt. This is a situation where interrupting is admissible. Of course, you should still do so politely. Letting someone have their say without interruption gives them the impression that you are interested and more likely to agree to do what they're asking.
6. Pre-empt. No need for a shock and awe campaign. However, you can actively reject work before it comes your way. For example, if you're going into a meeting expecting that you will be asked to undertake a project, announce at the very start of the meeting that you are unavailable (e.g., I just want everyone to know that my calendar is full for the next X weeks.").
7. Don't apologize or explain. A weak start to saying "no" is to first apologize: "I'm sorry but..." Most of us think that's the polite way to say "no." While being polite is important to most of us, in this case it just makes sound weak and unsure of our position. You can be polite without apologizing. Just be firm.
8. Use a sandwich. No, I don't mean to beat someone with a sandwich. Rather, sandwich your "no" between two "yeses". That is, precede and follow your "no" with an affirmative statement. For example, say your boss asks you to take on a project that will have you work on weekends, but you promised your wife and kids to do some family activity on the weekends. Starting by saying "yes" to your own interests (i.e., my family needs me), then state your "no" (i.e., I can't work this weekend), then close with a "yes" to your relationship with your boss and the company (i.e., Let's figure out a way that the work can get done and I can spend time with my family.).
9. Delay. Tell the requestor that you need time to think about the request and that you'll get back to him/her. You can always get back to him/her with something like: "I've taken a look at my schedule and present work load, and I won't be able to help you out at this time." Of course, if you don't want to shut the door on an opportunity, but really don't have time, then either ask them to check back with you at a specific date, or tell them you'll check back with them at a specific date...and then do!
10. Say "yes" first. This may seem counter-intuitive or synonymous with the "sandwich", but it is both different and acceptable, and can incorporate some delay tactics. Say your colleague asks you to do X. You can reply "I would love to. Can you back to me in a month? I am swamped right now and couldn't do the project justice." Or try delegating some of the work back to the requestor. For example "Sure I can X. Can you do A, B and C first? That way we'll know whether this project is viable before we commit to it?".
Finally, if you give a reason for saying "no", or want to give a reason, don't make up an excuse. Always tell the truth or, if it's in your power, make them an offer they can't refuse!
Remember that there's power in saying "no." One day President Lyndon Johnson phoned world-renowned economist John Galbraith at home, just as this latter had lain down to take a nap. "He's taking a nap and has left strict orders not to be disturbed" said Mr. Galbraith's housekeeper.
"Well, I'm the President. Wake him up" said President Johnson. "I'm sorry Mr. President, I work for Mr. Galbraith not for you", replied the housekeeper. The repercussions? When Mr. Galbraith eventually woke and called the President back, Johnson asked "Who was that woman? I want her working for me."