The art of saying “NO”
“I would prefer not to”
This short reply contains the essence of the best and worst of saying no.
The best is represented by two elements of this sentence:
- Bartleby the Scrivener is the ideal employee who, when asked to carry out a new task for the Wall Street legal practice where he works diligently as a copyist, he does not reply with a brutal, definitive “no”, but simply expresses a preference, leaving a margin for negotiation;
- The second important aspect is that Bartleby effectively endorses the freedom to respond either yes or no in the workplace, and to do so with a certain imperturbability, without the slightest embarrassment, guilt or fear of retaliation.
The worst, is the reason why his refusal leads to tragedy in the story and is represented by the fact that Bartleby gives absolutely no reason for his reply, but simply repeats it perpetually like a litany, until his employer is so exasperated that he resorts to extreme measures, such as firing Bartleby, moving his legal practice and imprisoning him until the story ends with his death.
Melville’s tale is an authentic masterpiece and anyone interested in an extract with commentary can watch a video in which Alessandro Baricco gives a short introduction to the book.
Moreover, saying “I would prefer not to” is an excellent starting point for thinking seriously and constructively about when, how and why people are justified in saying NO to their bosses, associates, colleagues, suppliers and clients in the workplace.
There is, therefore, an art and skill involved in saying “NO” which can be practised and employed successfully to improve the quality of your work, your life and the lives of others, even if at first impact, the word NO can generate negative feelings and emotions.
However, saying YES all the time can be counterproductive for several reasons:
- it can be the cause of overexertion at work resulting in a lower quality professional and private life as well as a numerous series of consequences (from failing to meet commitments because there are too many, to the risk of burn-out, demotivation and health problems);
- it can demonstrate an inability to define priorities and limits, a key skill in remaining focused and determined to reach set objectives;
- it can undermine self-esteem and self-confidence by denying oneself freedom of choice, namely, to express an opinion on what has been asked;
- it can turn into a vicious circle of apprehension that by saying NO, we would be judged harshly by others and considered to be unforthcoming and unwilling and with a poor sense of responsibility.
Nonetheless, allowing yourself to say NO to the things you are asked to do at work, does not mean saying NO all the time.
Work requests can often lead to exciting professional development and career enhancement opportunities that it would be a shame to miss out on. (Perhaps if Bartleby had said YES, the story would have gone differently and the finale would have been less tragic…)
One of the first aspects of the art of saying NO, therefore, is to avoid answering NO on automatic pilot, reflecting carefully about whether to answer YES or NO and how to word your answer
Another aspect of the art of saying NO is to go beyond a straight NO, giving a clear, detailed explanation
A third aspect of the art of saying NO is to express authentic gratitude and generosity towards the person who made the request
A fourth aspect of the art of saying NO is to do so firmly but serenely and with total peace of mind:
Adopting these simple techniques will transform your NO into an acceptable and perhaps useful response for the person making the request, but you must be willing to invest a little time in giving articulate answers.
Here are a few example answers for relatively common situations at work:
Situation A: how to say NO when someone asks you to do something urgent and you have a million other things to do
“I appreciate that what you are asking me to do is very important to you, but could you tell me how you think I can reschedule the other activities I am working on and what I can postpone to tomorrow?”
alternatively, another possible answer in the same situation is
“What you are asking me to do is undoubtedly important and I can take it off your hands, but to do so, I have to postpone X to tomorrow. Otherwise, we can ask So-and-so if he has time to do it, seeing as he has my same skills. What do you think?”
Situation B: how to say NO when someone asks you to do something but you don’t think you have the skills to do so
“What you are asking me to do is very interesting and I really would like to help you, but I don’t think I’m the best person to ask because I don’t have all the right skills. What if I help you think about who would be the right person for the job?”
“What you are proposing sounds really interesting, but if you don’t mind, it would be very useful for me to reflect upon whether I have all the skills this job needs.”
Situation C: how to say NO when someone asks you to do something but you don’t have time to do it
“I would like to take on what you’re asking me, but can’t right now. Is it ok if we talk about it again next week?”
“Thanks for having considered me for the job, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to do everything you’re asking. What I can do for you though is this…………….. and I can help you find someone else for the remaining part.”
Situation D: how to say NO when someone asks you to do something you are not interested in, that is not in line with your career objectives
“Your proposal flatters me and sounds exciting, but I am focused on other areas at this moment in time and I don’t they are very compatible. You could try asking X. They would be more suited to the job. What do you think?”
Situation E: how to say NO when someone asks you to do something you find illogical and of little use
“I understand your point of view, but I have a suggestion to put to you that could complement and enhance your idea.”
The examples given are not merely a gentle way of saying NO, rather they are intended to provide the person making the request with explanations, further thought and alternative or complementary proposals.
These suggestions will ensure that if you say NO, it will not sound like a generic, specious refusal from someone who is unprepared to do something, but they will ensure that your answer transmits the idea that the person giving the answer knows their priorities and what is important, is capable of setting healthy limits and proposing alternatives that may be better than the original idea.
This is the art of saying NO helpfully and constructively while showing respect for yourself and others.
Deciding what not to do, hence what to say NO to, is just as important as deciding what to do, hence what to say YES to, and this is true for everyone.