How to Say No …gracefully by Katy Tuncer

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Imagine you are not yourself, but you are “in charge” of you. You can deploy yourself to any set of tasks and activities you choose, in life and work.

This article describes the coaching approach that I have used with many senior leaders who find saying “no” challenging. As a fellow coach I hope you will enjoy going through this thinking yourself with me now, and perhaps consider applying some of it in your practice as well.

So we start this with: Imagine you are not yourself, but you are “in charge” of you. And then I ask: Would you choose to do the things that you are choosing to do with your time now? If not, what new things would you choose to really make a difference in your performance at work? Or in your relationships or wellbeing? How would you make more use of your strengths and skills and spend more time in flow? And what would you stop doing to prevent frustration and inefficiency, and stop draining energy?

So, why and how are you choosing not to deploy yourself to the ideal set of tasks and activities to achieve your personal aspirations and be satisfied in life?

Many people struggle to say no because for fear of looking bad.

Are you a productivity machine? A fixer or a supporter? A weary hero? A struggling victim? A bullet-proof hard-worker? It can be helpful to acknowledge and understand some of these self-crafted characters that human beings invent for themselves, and to see how you enjoy nurturing them…. Because often they are what is stopping you from choosing whether to say YES or NO to requests for your time and energy.


Why is it important to say no sometimes?

Saying no, when appropriate, can unlock more time for the priorities that matter most, and contribute to more functional and respectful relationships with colleagues.

When leaders take the significance, stress and panic out of saying no, it becomes possible to prioritise with conviction and efficiency, whilst leaving the person receiving a “no” feeling empowered and collaborative. Saying no does not have to mean fighting off the other person!

Why are some requests so hard to say no to?

The ideal request is completely clear, rational, and allows us to choose freely whether to accept or reject it. But in reality, most requests come weighted with expectation!

For example, both the requestor and the requestee often conflate:

  • The value of the requestor with the validity of the request

  • The value of the requestee with their willingness and ability to say yes

Very often we find subjective, defensive, personal judgement comes into every step of the negotiation. Some examples:

I ask the CEO for a meeting to talk in about next week’s coffee bean grinding targets. The boss says no. She doesn’t need to be involved in that level of detail. As the requestor, does this mean I do not have any value? She doesn’t want to talk about bean grinding… ok so I’m not appreciated, in fact my job is pointless, or the targets are wrong, the business is poorly led etc etc.

My peer asks me to draft an email for him. I don’t know enough about the subject and I have a lot on my plate so I say no. As the requestee I must be lazy or I don’t like him. His request isn’t valid, he shouldn’t have made such an unreasonable request, he has no value, he is failing in his job etc etc.

It’s no wonder we struggle with a graceful “no”!

How do we know when to say no?

We can all say yes to requests that clearly add value to something we care about. For example, “it furthers my business”; “it grows an important relationship”; “it makes me feel good about myself”; “it is more important that the other tasks I have on my plate”.

Sometimes though, we’ll say yes because we feel guilty about someone’s workload; we want to prove we’re the productivity-machine/fixer/hero (see above); it’s just quicker right now to do it ourselves; or we are simply scared to confront the person who should do it. And by choosing to accept a request that gives us nothing positive, we often feel negative about doing it, build resentment, behave with hostility to others, and perform poorly.

This is when to say no.


The Importance of Choosing

Saying yes, or saying no, comes down to making a personal choice in each case.

Claiming that you “can’t say no” is disempowering and inauthentic. With almost all requests you do have a choice, unless someone/something is physically forcing. You can take advice, gather more information, and weigh up the consequences, but ultimately you choose yes or no.

By accepting that you have a choice, and that you alone are responsible for making that choice, you can spare yourself from the blame, defensiveness and general drama that comes with a victim-mindset.

One of my CEO clients was working on a sales plan for a new geography with his Sales Director. His Sales Director was not approaching part of the planning in the way the CEO wanted, and the CEO had been forced to take over and write the plan himself. The CEO came to me full of self-rightousness, and angry that he was having to do someone else’s job.

By considering that he was playing the hero victim, he realised that he could say no (even to this perceived request to save the day!) and empower and steer his sales director instead. In this case though, he chose to say yes, and to draft a section of the plan himself. By powerfully choosing his own “yes”, he stopped feeling resentful and removed the conflict between himself and the sales director. They were back on the same team.


An empowering mindset for saying no

What does it mean when we say no?

  • The other person might feel stupid/bad for asking

  • Saying no to this is like saying no to everything this person wants from me

  • No one else will do it if I don’t do it

  • It makes me look weak/incapable/lazy

  • There is no other way to achieve the result I/the other person wants

  • It’s quicker to just do it

  • I need to show what a hero I am?

…We all have hundreds of conscious and sub-conscious stories about what it does, and could, mean to say no.

Imagine what would be possible if we could dispatch with these stories? Could we say yes or no effortlessly and move quickly onto alternative solutions?

Consider a “no” meaning this:
I, (as an individual), do not accept you, (as an individual).

That’s heavy, right?

Now consider a “no” meaning this:

My diary/task list/resources/plans do not accept this specific request.

A simple shift in mindset, like this, can make all the difference.

The natural next step becomes to problem-solve together with the requestor on the very reason the request came up: “That’s not the solution, so what else?”

For example, my client needed to say no to requests from five of his eight Executive Team members for extra resource for their departments. His initial stance was “no, we can’t afford it and we need to be more productive instead”. However, having worked through some of the mindset shifts described in this article, he decided to acknowledge the validity of his colleagues’ requests and probe into the underlying issues. Hence he created a problem-solving approach with his team. He asked what they wanted to do more of, and why. He helped them to identify the true value drivers in their teams, and how they contributed to the overall business goals, and he supported their judgements on what to de-prioritise operationally. By replacing a defensive and judgemental mindset with an empowering mindset he was able to leave his Executive Team satisfied and accepting of his “no” to extra resources.   


Crib-sheet: No In Four Steps (NIFS)

So, you have chosen to say no, and created the right mindset for yourself. Now what is the ideal technique for delivering the message?

Whether you’re the boss or the minion, whether the request is reasonable, cheeky or ground-breaking, and whether you like the person or not, following these four steps can reduce the chance of conflict, escalations, and defensive behaviour.

Many of my clients have used these steps to create a script for a “no” conversation when it’s a particularly tricky one. They’ve found that practicing it with a coach beforehand can help them deliver a graceful and effective no when the time comes.

Step 1. Acknowledge the request

Keep it simple. Say “I understand that you are asking me to write this article in a different format” or “you’ve requested that I call this angry customer”. Always check your understanding and listen for clarification.

Step 2: Validate person’s priorities

Take their perspective. Say “I understand that you think this format is more professional” or “angry customers are bad for business”. Again, you can clarify understanding, e.g. “Is there any other outcome you want to achieve with the new format?”.

Step 3: Say no

Take a breath and just say no. Say no to the request itself, and not to the validity of the request; the rationale for making it; or the other person’s value. Say: “On this basis, no. I am not convinced to change the format and I’m choosing to keep it the same.” Pause to allow them to ask questions.

Step 4: Offer something else

Add some value, for example by giving advice, support or offering to do another task to help them achieve their goals. Say: “Shall we discuss how to get our branding right every time?” or “Based on past experience, I recommend the customer service team send him a short polite email.”

For this self-coaching process to work well, it’s important to be extremely clear on your own priorities and aspirations before diving in. After all coaching is about getting people to coach themselves.

Practice makes perfect. Good luck!

To connect with Katy Tuncer you can email her at info@horizon37.co.uk

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Katy Tuncer is the APECS accredited Executive Coach and former McKinsey consultant who founded Horizon37. Her services include: Individual and Team Coaching, Strategy-led Facilitation, Leadership Training Courses, Workshops and Seminars.

Katy has devoted her career, since joining The British Army 20 years ago, to discovering and examining what works in leadership. Her experience spans McKinsey, small professional services firms, the Metropolitan Police, tech start-ups and community movements. She has led transformations in hugely diverse organisations – as an executive, a board member, an advisor and a founder. She has innovated, failed, succeeded, and challenged convention in leadership. And she has bolstered her personal learning through her role as a trusted coach to senior leaders – sharing and analysing their unique leadership journeys.

Katy works out what each client needs to perform outstandingly, and to achieve sustainable satisfaction in their work. In periods of new challenge she bring practical, tailored and business-led leadership