The Secret To Saying No Without Pissing People Off

The Secret To Saying No

Without Pissing People Off

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Time is precious. Never has it been harder to find than in the manic, hyper-connected 21st century world of work.  The business day of delivering products, services and company strategy now includes fending off a steady stream of unwanted requests. Not only are they a major distraction, they also devour our time and energy.

The Internet has aggravated this problem with its easy, unfiltered access with few consequences for inconsiderate, invasive behavior. Without us asking for them, in pour pitch letters, requests for introductions, product offers, and solicitations for coffee, glasses of wine and free advice. 

We fancy ourselves as “can do” professionals, team players who power through obnoxious situations, preferably politely and respectfully. That’s a salutatory goal, but a polite reply doesn’t seem to translate into a firm “no” that sends the requester away.

Or can it?

The Manners Movement:

Emily Post, the grand dame of social etiquette, came out of Victorian times with a set of rules that everyone adopted to “fit into” society. She was not just about which fork to use, when to write a thank you note and who gets introduced first. Her rules provided guidance on how to navigate interpersonal situations with grace and respect.

Emily Post Courtesy of The Emily Post Institute

While her classic tome is still in print, it no longer enjoys its wide acclaim. In the 21st century, the individual reigns supreme.  Self-interested behavior is not only acceptable but fair game. Old fashion codes of conduct have been abandoned with little to replace them. The egregious behavior of our national politicians reflects this trend.

To protect the quality of our work day, we must manage the self-centered, unaware oafs inside and outside of the office whose demand for our time makes life miserable.

Ten Types and Tips for Saying “No”:

Below are Ten Types and Tips for saying “no” effectively to colleagues, managers and vendors. Given different personalities, one size does not fit all. Responses must be tailored to the person and circumstances. In all these situations, a gracious, respectful response will increase the likelihood of protecting you from criticism and further unwanted requests.

In other words, think of good manners as a strategy, rather than a capitulation.

1. The Natterer: They talk compulsively, usually about some mindless dilemma of their own making. They are not interested in solving their problems, but rather in consuming your attention. Validate their concern, saying with a sympathetic smile, “It sounds like you have a real problem there. Good luck with that.” Then return to your work. If they persist in pestering you, try, “Sorry, but I need to get this done.” If that fails, stand up, and say, “Excuse me, I have to go.” Smile, say no more, and leave.

2. The Office Operator: This office classic always has an agenda, and wants you to serve it. They come at you with an oily, “Hey! How are you?” They add an empty social comment, then ask with their intent. “I hear you are buddies with [someone important to their cause]. Do you think you could ask her to. . .?” This operator has built no political capital with you. Your response: “I’d like to help, but I have no dog in this hunt, and she knows it. You might try [name].”

3. The Passive-Aggressive: They respond to your denial of their request with a sarcastic, “Oh, well, I guess you are super busy.” Your best response is a level, “’Yes, I am.” Resist biting on further remarks, it really won’t do you any good. 

4. The Digital Natterer: These people cannot end an online conversation, filling the air with rejoinders. “Yes, but can you believe…” It’s up to you to close the border. “Hey, gotta go, or the bailiff will be at the door.” Then stop answering. If it’s important, they will try another channel. You can decide whether it’s worth it to you.

5. The User:  You may or may not know these people from outside your company. If online, they might be a robot. Either way, it’s important to draw a boundary. “I’d liked to see you, but have no bandwidth. When I do, I’ll let you know.” If they come back, retain control of the conversation by repeating your position. Then end the exchange. If it is a robot, create an electronic filter that says, “delete.”

6. The Personalizer: No matter what you say, they hear any comment as a reflection on their self-worth. “No” is a rejection on their personhood. Preface any “no” by validating their worthiness. “I really appreciate you asking. Sounds like a great project. Unfortunately, I can’t help with this one because of a screaming deadline on [project name].”

7. The Bully: These aggressive personalities succeed through intimidation. “No” can feel dangerous. After a healthy pause to break the intensity, you say, calmly, without a hint of hostility, “Sorry, good idea, but I can’t help you with that.” They don’t expect that type of response and hate conflict. This works best when you add an objective business reason that does not reflect on them personally.

8. The Campus Pet: These people win a “yes” because they have gained support from the “right” people for their commitment to them and can-do attitude. They are also politically toxic. “No” to them must include a good business reason that keeps them looking good. “I don’t have the bandwidth right now, but have you considered talking with [name]? She would be perfect for that.”

9. The Debater: Unlike the bully who hits and runs, the debaters need to prevail.  There is no winning except on their terms. Your best move is to not engage. If they start up, raise your hand and say, “Sorry, I can’t get into this right now.” Then stop talking.

10. The Needy Person: A variation on The Natterer, their requests are probably gratuitous. What they need is validation – something a workplace is not geared to provide. When the whining begins, gently say you can’t help them, and wish them good luck.

Julie Benezet

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past fifteen years has coached executives from virtually every industry. She built Amazon’s first global real estate organization, and led for ten years the “Challenges of Leadership” program for executives at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Julie holds a master’s of psychology and law degrees from McGill University and a B.A. in psychology and anthropology from Cornell University. She is the author of the recent book, The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None.

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