“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to
saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon
enough.” — Josh Billings
In a world of more requests than we can possibly fulfill, learning to say no with grace and style is a skill we all need.
We should be saying no more than we say yes, although the opposite is usually true. We say yes too quickly and no too slowly.
To consistently say no with grace and clarity, we need a variety of responses. To some people this comes naturally. Others, however, offer noncommittal answers like “I’ll try to fit that in,” or “I might be able to” when they know full well they can’t.
It’s far better, however, to offer a clear “no” than string someone along or give them a “slow no.”
In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, there is a great section called “The No Repertoire.”
Saying no is its own leadership capability. It is not just a peripheral skill. As with any ability, we start with limited experience.
He offers eight responses you can put into your repertoire.
- The awkward pause.Instead of being controlled by the threat of an awkward silence, own it. Use it as a tool. When a request comes to you (obviously this works only in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before delivering your verdict. Or if you get a bit more bold, simply wait for the other person to fill the void.
- The soft “no” (or the “no but”). I recently received an e-mail inviting me to coffee. I replied: “I am consumed with writing my book right now 🙂 But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.”
E-mail is also a good way to start practicing saying “no but” because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft your “no” to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find that the distance of e-mail reduces the fear of awkwardness.
- “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”One leader I know found her time being hijacked by other people all day. A classic Nonessentialist, she was capable and smart and unable to say no, and as a result she soon became a “go to” person. People would run up to her and say, “Could you help with X project?” Meaning to be a good citizen, she said yes. But soon she felt burdened with all of these different agendas. Things changed for her when she learned to use a new phrase: “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” It gave her the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply that she was regretfully unavailable. It enabled her to take back control of her own decisions rather than be rushed into a “yes” when she was asked.
- Use e-mail bouncebacks. It is totally natural and expected to get an autoresponse when someone is traveling or out of the office. Really, this is the most socially acceptable “no” there is. People aren’t saying they don’t want to reply to your e-mail, they’re just saying they can’t get back to you for a period of time. So why limit these to vacations and holidays? When I was writing this book I set an e-mail bounceback with the subject line “In Monk Mode.” The e-mail said: “Dear Friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize.—Greg.” And guess what? People seemed to adapt to my temporary absence and nonresponsiveness just fine.
- Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?”Saying no to a senior leader at work is almost unthinkable, even laughable, for many people. However, when saying yes is going to compromise your ability to make the highest level of contribution to your work, it is also your obligation. In this case it is not only reasonable to say no, it is essential. One effective way to do that is to remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them to grapple with the trade-off.
For example, if your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can respond with “Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?” Or simply say, “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”
I know a leader who received this response from a subordinate. There was no way he wanted to be responsible for disrupting this productive and organized employee, so he took the nonessential work project back and gave it to someone else who was less organized!
- Say it with humor. I recently was asked by a friend to join him in training for a marathon. My response was simple: “Nope!” He laughed a little and said, “Ah, you practice what you preach.” Just goes to show how useful it is to have a reputation as an Essentialist!
- Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.”For example, “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” By this you are also saying, “I won’t be able to drive you.” You are saying what you will not do, but you are couching it in terms of what you are willing to do. This is a particularly good way to navigate a request you would like to support somewhat but cannot throw your full weight behind. I particularly like this construct because it also expresses a respect for the other person’s ability to choose, as well as your own. It reminds both parties of the choices they have.
- “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.”It is tempting to think that our help is uniquely invaluable, but often people requesting something don’t really care if we’re the ones who help them— as long as they get the help.
Tom Friel, the former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, once said, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’”
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less isn’t about doing more with less but rather the disciplined pursuit of focusing on the right things.
A forward looking organizational culture that could inspire change in positive ways, especially in gloomy times and places.
by Shane Parrish on October 28, 2013
“Invert, always invert.”
Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman at Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for his quote “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” That thinking was inspired by Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, the German mathematician famous for some work on elliptic functions that I’ll never understand, who advised “man muss immer umkehren” (or loosely translated, “invert, always invert.”)
“(Jacobi) knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward,” Munger counsels.
While Jacobi applied this mostly to mathematics, the model is one of the most powerful thinking habits we need in our toolkit.
It is not enough to think about difficult problems one way. You need to think about them forwards and backwards. “Indeed,” says Munger, “many problems can’t be solved forward.”
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Say you want to create more innovation at your organization. Thinking forward, you’d think about all of the things you could do to foster innovation. If you look at the problem backwards, you’d think about all the things you could do to create less innovation. Ideally, you’d avoid those things. Sounds simple right? I bet your organization does some of those ‘stupid’ things today.
Another example, rather than think about what makes a good life, you can think about what prescriptions would ensure misery.
While both thinking forward and thinking backwards result in some action, you can think of them as additive vs. subtractive. And the difference is meaningful. Despite the best intentions, thinking forward increases the odds that you’ll cause harm (iatrogenics). Thinking backwards, call it subtractive avoidance, is less likely to cause harm.
Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble. Call it the avoiding stupidity filter.
So what does this mean in practice?
Spend less time trying to be brilliant and more time trying to avoid obvious stupidity. The kicker? Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.
Super loved this by Ann Friedman. For all of you trying to create change in the world either as entrepreneurs or writers or simply by choosing to be kickass instead of kiss ass, you’ve already discovered haters. In Ann’s quest for understanding haters, she created The Disapproval Matrix, which I found to be so perfect, I just had to share it with you: This is one way to separate haterade from productive feedback. Here’s how the quadrants break down:
Critics: These are smart people who know something about your field. They are taking a hard look at your work and are not loving it. You’ll probably want to listen to what they have to say, and make some adjustments to your work based on their thoughtful comments.
Lovers: These people are invested in you and are also giving you negative but rational feedback because they want you to improve. Listen to them, too.
Frenemies: Ooooh, this quadrant is tricky. These people really know how to hurt you, because they know you personally or know your work pretty well. But at the end of the day, their criticism is not actually about your work—it’s about you personally. And they aren’t actually interested in a productive conversation that will result in you becoming better at what you do. They just wanna undermine you. Dishonorable mention goes to The Hater Within, aka the irrational voice inside you that says you suck, which usually falls into this quadrant. Tell all of these fools to sit down and shut up.
Haters: This is your garden-variety, often anonymous troll who wants to tear down everything about you for no rational reason. Folks in this quadrant are easy to write off because they’re counterproductive and you don’t even know them. Ignore! Engaging won’t make you any better at what you do. And then rest easy, because having haters is proof your work is finding a wide audience and is sparking conversation. Own it.
And so for those of you that wonder if I have ever read any of my YouTube comments, the answer is No. I suspect but have not given into temptation to see if my TED.com talk has gotten trashed over at YouTube. That’s because I saw what it did to friends who have gone before me. The people who are (as my friend Brene Brown would say) in the Arena of Life, showing up to fight for what they love… they are worth listening to.
For your own personal mastery, you need to get feedback that is constructively shaping you forward. So, don’t give the wrong people permissions they haven’t earned. For family, friends, colleagues, or strangers — look at the classification and decide if they have earned the right to criticize, and then decide whether to listen to their point of view.
P.S. So if you happen to see a friend’s video on You Tube, don’t start the conversation about their hard work they are putting out into the world with “those idiots on YouTube…” You are simply not putting your mouth where your heart is. (And, yes, this happens more than you might imagine and so there is plenty of evidence that this doesn’t bring two people closer together.)