“Oh, I’d love to help but I don’t want to.”
Phoebe in Friends

How to say no

Maybe you thought that this year would be different. Maybe you thought that you’d be leaping out of bed, scarily organized, and powering through your to-do list like a dog digging for something gross in the sand.

But then you took a look at your to do list and realized that not even a Marvel superhero could get through that lot in a year.

Where did you go wrong?

The answer, my friend, is that your schedule and your to do list is packed full of stuff, of commitments and I-don’t-know-what, because you don’t know how to say no.

Because saying no is being mean. Saying no isn’t nice. Saying no shows that you’re not a team player. We all know that there’s no ‘I’ in team.

But there is an ‘I’ in “Stop the world! I want to get off!”

Why you should say no

Here’s a thought. Saying no is the grown-up thing to do when saying yes means:

  • Your head is going to explode
  • You don’t get your priority done
  • Instead of doing a few things well, you do a lot of things badly
  • You’re being asked to do something that makes you feel uneasy
  • You train people to depend on you
  • You’re feeding an unhealthy desire to please people, at a cost to yourself.
  • You feel just a little (or a lot) of resentment. It’s human.
  • Saying no to yourself

What happens when you say no

If you say no more often, this is what happens:

  • Your schedule miraculously clears. You have time for your kids, your hobbies, and your life again.
  • At work, you get to do your own work well.
  • You get a little breathing space and time to plan, rather than sprint from task to task.
  • You can’t remember what resentment feels like.
  • You feel more in control of your own time. And when you feel in control, the world feels brighter.

Sounds good, huh?

But here’s the difficult bit:

How do you say no without looking unhelpful?

How do you say no without feeling like the worst person in the world?

How to say no without looking like a jerk

It’s all in buying time and the language you use. Here’s our two-step methodology for how to say no while still keeping your reputation for being a helpful, warm human being.

Step 1: Buy some time.

When someone asks you to do something, it’s very easy to roll over and say “Yup, no problem!”, when there is actually a problem. So your first step is to buy some time to think about it. Giving yourself time to think about it will help you:

  • Assess what you’re being asked to do. Clarifying the task will give you a better idea if it’s something that’s in your best interests to help with, or something that’s not right for you.
  • Ponder on whether there is some way to help but without committing to the entire task.
  • Prepare to say no.

Finding the language to buy time can be difficult, but it gets easier with practice, especially if you stay gracious and warm, and practice the “Buying Time Sandwich”, which is your buying time manoeuvre sandwiched between two layers of thanks. Here’s the theory:

  1. Thank
  2. Question
  3. Commit
  4. Thank

It looks like this in real life:

Your work buddy: “Hey, can you help me with this presentation? I need to fill in these figures and I know you’re good at numbers and I’ve got to finish it by 10 am tomorrow. Pleeeeeeeeeease help me.”

You: (Thank) Hey, work buddy, thanks for thinking I might be able to help. (Question) Can you give me some time to think it through? I just got to check I have space for it. (Commit) I’ll let you know by 2pm this afternoon if I can help. (Thank) And thanks for your understanding.”

But sometimes you’re faced with people who say, “Hey, can you help with this NOW?” Quash that knee-jerk yes habit with some assertive but graceful responses, such as:

“Thanks so much for thinking I might be able to help but I can’t drop what I’m working on right now. Thanks for your understanding.”

“Thanks for telling me about it, but I’m not the best person for this right now. Thanks for your understanding.”

Step 2: Saying no.

OK, you’ve thought about it, its 2pm and you’ve decided that it’s a no-no. Use the No Sandwich to gently turn them down. There are four layers in the sandwich:

  1. Thank
  2. Acknowledge
  3. No
  4. Thank again

For instance: “Thanks for asking me to help you. It sounds like the presentation is a challenge and I’m glad you thought I might be the person to help you. But I’m not able to help you out. Thanks so much for your understanding.”

Honesty and saying a sort-of yes

When you’re thinking about saying no, bear these in mind:

  • Be honest: Being honest is the right thing to do but it also avoids awkwardness later. If you’re tempted to give an excuse about why you can’t do the task, the asker might just find ways to bust open your excuse. What do you then?
  • How else can you help?: During your thinking time, and even if you’ve decided no to the full task, how about coming up with some alternatives or partial ways you can help? If you’d be happy to help a little, then say it and do it. For instance, perhaps you can’t attend the conference call, but you can prime your team leader with some questions for the delegates. Perhaps you can’t complete your work buddy’s figures for her presentation, but you can check them when she’s done.

Saying no isn’t a direct route to unpopularity. It’s healthy assertiveness in action and a people skill that’ll give you some time and headspace back. And you can start to learn it today.

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