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The Subtle Art of Saying No

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In recent columns we have explored strategies to improve our time management skills, organizational skills, managing prioritization of tasks, and beating procrastination. We implement these strategies to improve our productivity and quality of life, but sometimes we still find ourselves caught up in a whirlwind of tasks and projects that don’t contribute to the outcomes and results we want. 

If you think back to one of the earlier columns on this topic, we talked about making note of all the things you do throughout the day to see where your time goes. What I am going to suggest now is that you complete that exercise again for a two-week period and document your activities in 15-minute intervals. However, this time, when you write down what you did, I want you to add some notes to indicate if this activity could have been avoided altogether had you said “no” to the task.

Saying “no” is hard. We are conditioned early in life to view “no” responses as rude. We learn as kids that saying no is impolite and so, over time, we become people pleasers that don’t say no, even if it’s perfectly acceptable. Saying “no” may make you feel like you are rejecting the person, or you might feel like a bad person. What I have found is that when I say “yes” to someone when I didn't really want to, I end up being miserable and resentful. I also have learned that because I say “yes,” I do not have enough time in my day to work on the things I want to.

So, how can we say “no” to our colleagues, friends, employers, employees, and family? Here a few tips for you to try.

Just say “no.” Seems obvious, but so often we say “not right now” or “not at this time” and this gives the asker wiggle room to keep asking until you say “yes.” Often, we also accompany our answer with excuses, which makes us look lame and we end up kicking ourselves for it. If someone has a hard time taking “no” for an answer, they are not being respectful of you and your time. 

Cushion it with kindness. You might feel more comfortable with a softer approach. Options include, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I have way to much on my plate right now” or, “I appreciate your time, but no, thank you” and, “I’m flattered that you would ask, but I’m not going to be able to devote the time to provide you with quality help you want.” When you speak to people this way, and are genuine about it, both of you will feel good about the outcome. 

Ask for help in reshuffling priorities. When your boss asks you to take on one more project that you don’t have time for, ask to talk about resetting schedules and deadlines for all your current projects. You can also tell your boss that you’ll start the new project when you finish your existing projects, but be sure to let your boss know your estimated time of completion. 

Empathize and acknowledge. Protect the other person’s feelings by saying, “I know this isn’t the answer you were hoping for, but no.” 

I’m not comfortable with that. When you are asked do something such as babysit a neighbor’s dog or loan a friend some money, it’s OK to say, “I’m not comfortable watching dogs” or, “I’m not comfortable lending money.” People can’t invalidate your feelings easily when your response tells them you are uncomfortable

I’m good. I have a colleague that uses this a lot with salespeople. When he gets a pitch from a wireless carrier he says, “No, thanks, we’re good with our current provider.” You can use this also when you get cold called.   

One of the lessons I have learned about this whole topic is that you will need to practice saying “no.” In fact, you must proactively work on this skill because it is not natural for most of us. The more you practice this, the more conditioned people will become to hearing your “no” response and not take it personally. They become mindful and respectful of your time and will figure out ways to resolve the concern on their own, or will at least stop popping in on you and instead will request a meetup. Learning to say “no" is going to be very impactful for you. You will feel empowered, productive and in control.

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