Saying No without Saying No

I write in the morning, just after meditation, starting my day with clearing my brain, then seeing what comes out. On some days, thoughts bubble up, distracting my meditation; sometimes, while I meditate, part of my brain is ticking away and, once when the timer goes off and I reach for my laptop, it’s just a question of typing the words onto the page.

On some days, I don’t feel like I have much to say and nothing comes easily to the page. I try to prompt myself: what has happened recently that I feel strongly about? What has interested me? What observations do I have?

Interesting things happen all the time to me – interesting to me, that is, because they happen to me. Conversations at work, the colleague who came to me because he didn’t know how to explain to another colleague that the work she was asking him to do was going to put him in a bind. He had carved out enough time for a project of a certain size and now she was asking him to put in twice as much work. And he didn’t know how to tell her that he couldn’t carve out that much time. It was, from my perspective, a wonderful problem: how do you tell someone no without telling them No – something I feel like I am an expert at after having worked on it for years and still having it show up on my performance evaluation, because I once told the VP of HR No. (I still maintain that No was the right answer – that was proven right by later events. She was right in that there was a better way to say it. But to insist that my supervisor put it on my performance evaluation for four years was excessive.)

So how do you say No when someone bigger than you asks you to do work that exceeds your capacity? Here are several thoughts:

  • Start by asking questions to understand exactly what they are looking for and when. Sometimes clarifying the ask helps you recognize that they’re not asking for something unreasonable. And getting them talking about it, gives you time to breathe and think through your approach.
  • Then express delight at the idea. What a wonderful idea! What a great assignment. I’m very excited about it. This prevents the person from feeling rejected. If you start with “I don’t know how” they don’t leave respecting your time; they leave thinking you are such a downer. Just make sure your tone indicates that this is not the end of the conversation (this takes some practice).
  • Wonder aloud how you can fit in the work. It is always helpful to know all the things you are working on and have some visual representation of them. Then you can pull that out – or point to it – and say, “Here are the priorities right now. Hm, how can we fit this in?”
  • Then talk about what you can do. “If I move this other thing that you asked me to work on to later, I could get this done this week. Would that work for you?” Now you’ve told them that you can get it done, and that the decision about which of their assignments takes priority is up to them. You’re forcing them to recognize that your time is not infinite and giving them control over that priority.
  • If none of the things on the board belong to them, you can say, “I’d love to help – I’m working on these deadlines for Joe and Mary. If you could talk to one of them about whether their work could be pushed out, I could squeeze it in.” Then wait. This is important – it’s not your job to talk to Joe and Mary; your colleague is the one asking the favor; if it’s really important to them, let them be the one to ask, the one to tell Joe and Mary that their work is more important.
  • Sometimes you can use the project management triangle to find solutions. The triangle is scope (requirements/quality), time, and money. So if you don’t have time, could you hire someone to do it, someone that your colleague could pay for? For example, “I’ll have to bring on an extra resource to do the work (or to help with other work so your team can do this work). I notice you’ve got an open position in your area; if you could delay hiring that person by a month, we could talk to finance about reallocating that payroll to pay for this extra resource.” Or could you do part of what they’re asking and do the rest later? “I can get X requirements done by the 5th; and do Y & Z the week of the 15th. Will that work for you?”

In this way, you are focusing on what you can do for the person, not what you can’t do. This tells the person that you are ready and able, and puts the ball back in their court. This makes a much better impression than saying, “I just don’t have time.” Or by saying yes and driving yourself into the ground.

It takes some practice, so don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work the first few times. But eventually you’ll get there, and you’ll find that people think of you as someone who can do, not someone who says No all the time.

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