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The Subtle Art of Saying No

Bovo-Tighe November Leaves

Leaves are changing colors and Pumpkin Spiced Lattes are back! That can only mean one thing, summer is over and the holiday season is upon us. With that said, it’s imperative to dedicate time and energy in thinking of ways to stay focused and effective. This will help you to better identify and address barriers and distractions. It can be helpful to think in terms of differences you can learn to recognize.

One of the first things to consider is your ability to distinguish the difference between important and urgent tasks. As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said. “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”. This sentence eventually led to the Eisenhower Decision Principle, and later the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, made famous by Stephen Covey in his book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In that book, Covey created a decision matrix to help individuals make the distinction between what’s important and not important and what’s urgent and not urgent.

The matrix consists of a square divided into four boxes, or quadrants, labeled thusly:

  • Urgent/Important-Tasks that require immediate attention and work towards a goal.
  • Not Urgent/Important– No pressing deadline but will help you achieve or fulfill goals.
  • Urgent/Not Important-Require our attention but don’t help us fulfill our mission.
  • Not Urgent/Not Important-Primarily distractions like TV & social media.

Another factor in being effective is how often you say “no”.  In the words of the late “founder of modern management”, Peter Drucker,  “People are effective because they say no.” At first this can sound harsh or socially counterintuitive, but lets dig a little deeper. Saying “no” to people can be scary at times. Especially when it’s directed at a friend, boss or neighbor. It can make you feel awkward and bring physical discomfort at times. But failure to do so can cause us to miss out on more important issues and opportunities. Think about where we’d all be today if Rosa Parks had decided to say, “yes”.

People tend to respect those with the courage and conviction to say no, as long as it leads to increased productivity and is done “gracefully”. Remember a clear “no” can be more graceful than a vague, “yes”. Denying a request is not the same as denying that person. Often times you don’t have to use the word no, in fact some of the most successful leaders choose “no” more often then they say “no”.

The “no” repertoire as outlined by Greg Mckeown in his book, EssentialismThe Awkward Pause—Own it, use it as a tool, and count to 3 before stating your decision.

  • Soft no, or “no and”—Helpful for when you are swamped and/or working towards a tight deadline.
    1. Let the person know that as much as you’d like to join/help, you are unable to do so until a certain point in time and suggest re-connecting then.
  • “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”-This is a great one to use when you find others are constantly hijacking time—especially if you are considered the “go-to” person.
    1. This response gives you time to pause, reflect and enables you to take back control of your decisions.
  • Email Bounce Backs—Mainly used when traveling or on holiday, Mckeown suggests these can also be used when under a tight deadline or go into “Monk mode”.
    1. It’s just a way of letting people know that unfortunately you are not able to respond to emails in a matter you’d like.
  • Say “yes” and ask what you should de-prioritize—Saying no to a senior leader is almost laughable. But when saying yes compromises your ability to contribute, it’s your duty.
    1. If in this situation, remind them that of what you’d be neglecting and let them grapple with the tradeoff.
  • Say it with Humor—If a friend or colleague asks if you’d like to start training for a marathon with them a simple “nope” should suffice.
  • Use the words, “your are welcome to X, I am willing to Y” — This is good for when you receive a request you’d like to support but can’t throw your full weight behind.
  • I can’t right now but X might be interested—Most people don’t care who helps them as long as it gets done.

Saying “no” is really a leadership skill. Like any skill, it takes awhile to develop. But in time you’ll gain mastery at a social art form that enables you to handle any request with grace and dignity. It’s time more people learn the art of the slow “yes” and fast “no”.

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