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Clear Water Lake

Saying No Without Saying “NO!”


The last thing people want to hear after they have presented an idea is a plain, outright “No” or “I don’t think so,” or even, “I disagree.” You can just feel people deflate in front of you when they hear those responses as they get ready for defeat or an argument they don’t want to have.


How can you say “no” without being discouraging or argumentative?


First, simply don’t use those words. Leave them out. They aren’t absolutely necessary. Say them in your head and then go on to the next sentence. People are smart enough to get the message, but they are also smart enough to ignore what had not been made explicit.


Second, even if you’re pressed for time, take a minute to explore what is being said by asking questions instead of making responses. Negative responses frequently end a discussion that might have provided information leading to a whole new way of thinking about the topic. Try these approaches instead:


  • I hadn’t thought about it that way. What prompted going in that direction?

  • I was thinking about it in the context of a policy that says . . . Would that affect your approach?

  • That’s interesting. Tell me more.


Third, if you really have to say “no” to an idea, at least explore what is possible before saying the whole proposal is impossible. For example, let’s say someone asks you for your support on a project on which your two departments are supposed to cooperate. Your schedule is very busy and you can’t really spare anyone right now, but in two months the project will be over and staff time will be more flexible.


Instead of saying “no, we can’t help you now,” or even, “we’re completely tied up for the next two months,” how about saying something like this:


I’ve heard about the project, and we’re looking forward to being part of it. For about the next two months we will be completing the new software installation you’ve been hearing about, so my staff is pretty busy now. After that we can provide a lot of support. Would that timing work for you?


Maybe it doesn’t, and your colleague really needs some help now and will need a lot more later. Because you haven’t answered with a simple “no,” he or she can continue to explore the needs and see if some agreement can be reached rather than simply continuing to plead for help and feeling unnecessarily needy.


Fourth, turn a potential disagreement into a negotiation. Your next response could be something like:


In that case, I can probably free up about 10 hours a week for the next few weeks and then add people to support you as their work on our project ends. Would that work?


If not, begin to explore how you can work together to get the necessary resources. Although you have had to say “no,” however indirectly and politely, you have also been helpful in addressing the need, and that will be remembered as support, not interference.


In short, explore jointly what’s possible before stating unilaterally what’s impossible. Then turn the conversation into a discussion or negotiation rather than a declaration of your own opinion. The discussion or exploration might generate a new idea or uncover a piece of information that changes your initial perception of the situation and helps you say, “Yes!”

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