There will always be those tricky situations, but you can set yourself up for success
One small word can be very difficult to say. “We fear that every ‘no’ is a missed opportunity to make a difference and build a relationship”, says Wharton professor Adam Grant. And it is easy to feel like “no” equates to someone liking you that little bit less.
Consensus among psychologists, however, is that “no” isn’t taken as badly as we think. We have a tendency to think we’ll be judged more harshly than we are. Vanessa Bohns of Waterloo University in Ontario says the consequences of saying “no” to others are much worse in our heads than in reality.
Of course, perfecting the art of rejecting a request from a colleague, friend or loved one won’t happen overnight – as with anything, it’s a case of practice makes perfect.
AN AIR OF OPTIMISM
To start, ensure you put that “no” into context – as something potentially positive. “Remind yourself that when you’re saying ‘no’ to a request, you’re simultaneously saying ‘yes’ to something you value more”, advises leadership expert Peter Bregman.
Saying “no” doesn’t come easily to most, but if you can master it, the pay-offs will offset the initial struggle. As billionaire investor Warren Buffett has said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
One way to help yourself is to generate a mindset where “no” defines choice, rather than restriction. A study from the Journal of Consumer Research has shown that people who frame things in their own life with “I don’t” – “I don’t lapse on my fitness targets”, for example – stick to goals far better than those who disempower themselves with “I can’t”.
Next, make sure you can present the “no” in the right way. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, communications expert Holly Weeks explains that people usually argue their “no” backwards. Opening with an anecdote or lightweight reasons for rejecting a request, rather than just cutting to the chase, can be counter-productive. People appreciate honesty, and you don’t want to seem disingenuous. Moreover, a tentative “no” can leave room for ambiguity, and then false hope. Having to say it twice is worse than saying it once.
THE CONSTRUCTIVE DEFLECTION
Once you’ve said “no”, make sure you have ways to effectively re-route the recipient. That way, you’re less likely to burn bridges. Weeks recommends deferring the request if you’re busy (“I’m snowed under right now, I’m afraid”), referring it onwards if you’re not the best person for the job, or referencing your commitment to someone else by way of explanation as to why you can’t help. A Harvard study into strategies for closing the gender pay gap found that these “relational accounts” offer a way out while also preserving a cooperative image. For example: “As a mentor, I have to prioritise everyone I help. Giving special priority to one person means someone else will lose out.”
THE DOWNRIGHT RELENTLESS
There will always be those who won’t take no for an answer. But rather than reverting to false promises to try and soften the situation – “We can’t now, but perhaps in a year” – why not follow Grant’s lead when dealing with a tricky respondent: “I decided to level with him. ‘I’m sorry to disappoint. One of my goals is to improve my ability to say “no” – you are a tough audience. I suppose it’s good practice.’”
Sillier times with colleagues
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