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A Question of How to Say “No”

When I did a webinar, “Self Management in Frantic Times”, the most popular question that attendees sent in advance had to do with how to say “No.” No, because the request was illogical or unworkable. No, if I just can’t get to it right now on top of everything else. No, until the conditions are better so the payoff will be greater.

It’s hard to say “No” — and have it stick. Almost everyone wants to be a good sport, a good soldier, a team player, a good citizen. Certainly most people don’t want to be labeled as negative, or obstructionist, or Cassandras, even when their experience or instinct tells them that saying Yes will create even greater risk for themselves or their organizations. (The few who do want that kind of labeling, well, they have a different kind of problem.)

So how to straddle the gap? First know your goals, which might be a combination of yours and your organization’s. What are you trying to accomplish — what’s your real purpose — at that tricky intersection where values and mission and operational realities meet?

Or maybe it’s a sort of traffic circle, and you’re going round and round between Who you’re aspiring to be and What needs to be accomplished and How you’re trying to get it done — in which case you may have to verify or re-state the goals and purposes with others in a position to know.

After everything that “needs” to be done is articulated, you’ve got a chance at setting priorities, either unilaterally (by yourself), collaboratively (with your manager or team), or reactively (because you’ve been explicitly directed to do so). If it’s possible, create and circulate lists or plans or schedules that show what resources have been assigned to each priority and the target dates for various milestones or stages.

Then if it’s all still too overwhelming, you can take a stab at saying something like, “I’ll be happy to start the Fitzengruber Project immediately, as you’ve asked. I just want to make sure you recognize that Phase IV of the Snufflegrass Project will drop a notch down the priority list and we won’t be able to meet the current schedule.”

If that slower pace for Snufflegrass is not satisfactory, then you have a negotiation to manage: Can additional resources be assigned? Other requirements lifted? Other dates shifted?

And if there’s truly no choice, at least you might be able to wangle a commitment to bring in dinner for the folks working late, or some time off after the deadline is met.

Of course this is all easier said than done. The real issue is whether you can have the kind of tactful, pragmatic, inspiring conversation you need to have with whichever individuals or groups think they have, or ought to have, control over your agenda. But that’s a different question.

Onward and Upward,


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