I realized a few years ago that one of the keys to effective leadership is learning to say no.
It’s difficult, because when you’re starting out (like I did 17 years ago) with almost no people, no money and lots of time on your hands, you end up saying yes to just about anything to get something started. When you got nothing…you jump at anything that comes your way. (I’m not recommending that as a strategy…I’m just saying that’s how it begins for many of us.)
But eventually, your opportunities exceed the time available to fill them. So you work more hours. Get more efficient. Learn some time management.
But then you hit another wall. And you realize:
I will never be efficient enough to handle it all.
Some of the things (okay, maybe a lot of things) I’m saying yes to are counter-productive.
Yes to everything means no to the most important things
If I keep working this hard, I will burn out before 40 (I defied the odds and burned out at 41)
No becomes your friend. I’ve posted about that before. But how do you learn to say no without being rude?
If you don’t master that skill, you will never manage your priorities well, or you might just become a bit of jerk in trying to do that. That’s the issue I want us to zero in on.
I’m going to walk you through a strategy that I’ve used to deliver a ‘no’ that makes people still feel (we hope) valued. It works whether you have an assistant or not (I do). It combines both the type of words you use (tone) in all conversation and some practical steps to help people get what they want without getting you involved.
Step One: Say you’d love to meet. Try starting the conversation or email with something like I’d love to meet with you or That’s an interesting idea! Thanks for sharing it with me. I would hope these statements are true (and it’s almost always true in my case…I want to meet with far more people than I can). It let’s people know you care about them. And you began the conversation with a yes. Not a no.
Step Two: Affirm their intention. Just because you might feel bad about saying no doesn’t mean you need to make them feel bad about it. Take a few sentences to value their idea. Or let them know you understand why they would want to get together (I can see that…I understand that).
Step Three: Don’t commit on the spot; ask for a follow up. I get requests almost every week to meet with people when they see me face to face. I almost always tell them to send me or my assistant Sarah an email to set it up. Believe it or not, over half never do. Interpretation? The issue probably wasn’t that important to them…and the meetings likely wouldn’t have been a good use of either of our time. But smile when you say this. Don’t blow them off. If you have an assistant, this is a great place to get him or her involved. Give them your assistant’s email. If the request comes in via email or DM, send it to your assistant for follow up. If you don’t have one, relax…the strategy works regardless.
Step Four: Let them know you can’t help, but someone else can. If the email or text (I’m quite protective of my cell number, so I rarely get requests to meet via text because all those people are already on my priority list), that’s when Sarah and I start to redirect. A bridge sentence helps so much here. Something like “while I’d love to get together, I’m afraid I can’t…” or “that’s such a great idea…I think I know someone who could serve you better…let me introduce you” or “while I’d love to, I’m afraid my schedule just isn’t going to allow it in the next while. I’m so sorry.”
Step Five: Be Firm. You will get a few who insist and persist. At that point you might want to ask several more detailed questions such as “Can you tell me exactly what the purpose of the meeting is?” “Why do you think I am the one who can help you with that?” “Have you tried talking to others?” And if it’s still not the best use of your time, then you simply need to say “As much as I’d like to…I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Step Six: Thank them. Always be kind. Close kindly on every transaction. Just because you couldn’t help them doesn’t mean their request isn’t valid. So thank them for being passionate about the issue or reaching out for help. You may deny the request, but you want to honour the relationship.
I know what you’re thinking – but what if you miss some great opportunities by saying no too often? What if you get it wrong and you should have met with someone?
To deal with that, I always keep one or two one hour calendar slots open each month for people who aren’t regularly in my relational/work circle but who might be interesting to meet with, even if it’s not 100% strategic. It’s a pressure release valve on your calendar too, and sometimes out of those breakfasts, some great stories come out of those meetings. If not, I’m doing for one what I wish I could do for everyone.
Saying no is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership. But you can get better at it. And still be nice about it.
What are you learning on this? What are some great ways of saying no you’ve learned?