Some witty and wise responses to a persistent problem 

I currently coach and mentor five charity CEOs on a fortnightly basis. One common theme we discuss is the art of saying NO. It is a habit too few people have.   

Levels of YES  

However, we first need to understand that the answer YES has several different levels. Here's one way an ex-line manager did it with me -    

"I'm sorry, but I can't discuss saying NO now. I will say YES to discussing saying No as soon as I have said NO to some things I should not have said YES to."   

When overwhelmed with stuff, we don't even say NO when we know we should – it is easier to procrastinate or avoid, which ends up meaning YES.  

 Or to put it another way, we may be taking advantage of the flexibility of the English language and playing with the 7 Types of YES. 

1    Yes – I am committed with all my heart and soul 
2    Yes – I am committed and will do this 
3    Yes – I accept responsibility for doing this 
4    Yes – I will do this eventually 
5    Yes – I am not sure about this but will do it if I can find time 
6    Yes – I would like to do this but there is little chance that I will 
7    Yes – over my dead body! 

Examples of avoiding NO  

The inability to say NO  is, however, a more common problem than people think.   

So, here are five examples of how you might avoid saying NO.  

  1. When working as a charity CEO, my tactics would include "the stall". "Would it be possible for me to think about it in more depth, and report back in detail to the Board at its next meeting?" Company directors or organisation trustees should make their decisions on considered facts.  If they do not, then they open themselves up to all sorts of risks.  
  2. Another tactic is "the embarrassment. "Erm, actually I think this course of action could embarrass me/the directors/the company, and here is why".  
  3. Another, and the easiest to do, is "It's illegal/immoral/amoral/or outside of the company's memorandum and articles, and thus potentially illegal."  
  4. What about, "It's a marvellous idea, and a great development opportunity, and yet I think we should postpone it for a while as we need to focus on x, y, or z at the moment." 
  5. Alternatively, "I would find it difficult to find the time at the moment, bearing in mind all the other exciting things the Board has asked me to do".  

My Top Ten Tips for Saying NO 

So, if you want to learn to say NO, and mean it, here are my top ten tips adapted from Emma De Vita's book, "The management master class" (p122).  

 Learning to say no clearly and effectively is a vital leadership and management skill that only gets easier with practice.  

Ten ways to say no are:  

  1. Start by saying NO.   
  2. Keep saying NO – practice makes perfect.  
  3. Give your reasons.  
  4. Keep your message clear – clarity and simplicity work best, and occasionally bluntness. 
  5. However, acknowledge their situation and their requests. 
  6. But stick to your guns. 
  7. Offer constructive options. 
  8. Reassure them – that you have a solution in mind, a better alternative, a compelling reason why not, or give a timeline for getting to the matter eventually 
  9. When pressed hard for a YES response, ask questions – I found Why and How questions were particularly deadly to flights of fancy by senior managers and the like 
  10. However, also own up to unrealistic expectations you have created.  

Practice, not avoidance, is the answer! 

Practise different ways of saying "No", from the blunt NO through to the "I'm sorry I'd love to do it, and yet I have so many things to do in the time available" sort of NO. 

Better still, add in these accompanying management skills –  

Prioritisation – root all decisions on an agreed plan and flex the schedule only if other choices prove necessary. 

Delegation – grow your team's capacity to take responsibility. 

Coach and mentor key staff – grow collective responsibility and the ability to say NO! 

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