I came across an article in the New York Times’ ‘Smarter Living’ section that talked about techniques on how to practice to say ‘no’ since saying ‘no’ is not only empowering but may also advance your career. (1)
Saying ‘no’ is not egoistic. It serves yourself, the people around you, your organisation and your customers - if done consciously.
Saying ‘no’ to suggestions, tasks, or invitations frees up our energy and time to say ‘yes’ to other things. And while I agree with the New York Times article that it is important to practice saying ‘no’ and that being able to say ‘no’ is an important skill to have, I believe that there is a preliminary step that has to be taken first: consciously choosing what we say ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to; consciously choosing what we want to focus our energy and time on.
Consciously saying ‘no’ - as opposed to just saying ‘no’ - has several benefits on a personal and larger level
By making a conscious choice on what you say ‘no’ to, you don’t accidentally say ‘no’ to what might be a great opportunity just because it is after 5pm or because you don’t want to have more than 10 things on your plate at once.
Knowing why you’re saying ‘no’ makes saying it easier, more authentic, and as a result less offensive to the recipient of the ‘No’ since you’re not just saying ‘No’ for the sake of doing so.
By fostering an awareness around our choice and ability to say ‘no’, we can eliminate time-wasters from our life. These are tasks that do nothing to advance our cause or to bring us closer to our goals. We perceive them as useless and they clog up our to-do lists and our days. Our conscious ‘No’ may result in certain tasks not being done at all and may, thus, have helped to eliminate time-wasters from other people’s lives as well. At work, our conscious ‘No’ may do our organisation the favour of eliminating a task that serves no one, provides benefit to no one, a task that was just a waste of everyone’s time.
Choices are lining up between the two points ‘yes’ and ‘no’
A reflexive ‘no’ can deprive us of new and enjoyable experiences or opportunities. It is one thing to say a quick ‘no’ to a sales person or to the special of today’s menu. It is another thing to reflexively say ‘no’ to invitations or job opportunities. Here, it may be safer to ask for time to consider the offer while reserving the right to reject it - consciously. Even more important is the awareness, that your choice is not actually binary (yes versus no)! You could go back with a request to amend the offer or a counteroffer. What is appealing about the original offer? What doesn’t serve you but could still be turned into something useful? What would you really like?
“It’s about me, not you!” needs an explanation in order to benefit the recipient
Knowing why we say ‘no’ makes the ‘no’ more about us and less about the recipient of the ‘no’. Communication theory preaches to avoid ‘you’ in conversations that can be perceived as negative and to speak in terms of ‘I’, that means to focus on where you as the speaker are coming from, instead.
“I’m not coming to your party” leaves lots of interpretational room to the host on why I won’t come. “I need to focus on my health/family/… right now and am avoiding evening activities, but I’d be happy to meet you during the day over lunch” removes the interpretational space the recipient might have otherwise filled with hurtful reasoning, such as ‘He doesn’t like me’, ‘She thinks she’s too important for me’, etc. We can never completely foolproof our message since the recipient can always choose how to interpret our words. But we can try to point the interpretation in the direction we intended. For that, it helps to be clear on our intention ourselves. Consciously choosing what we say ‘no’ to brings awareness and clarity to our intention.
Reflective vs. Reactive working shows leadership
Corporations under cost-pressure ask fewer and fewer employees to cover more and more tasks. Working under time pressure can result in reactive working, just trying to tick of the next item on an ever-growing to-do list. Without any time to reflect, we lose the overview and the ability to recognise what actually serves our purpose, our project, our customer, and our organisation.
Consciously saying ‘no’ and ‘yes’ means taking responsibility for your work and life, and it is an expression of leadership.
A conscious ‘no’ with transparent intentions can be a trigger for change
It takes guts to consciously say ‘no’ to purposeless ideas or tasks and to not just go with the flow. Saying ‘no’ will benefit the organisation only if it is done consciously and if that conscious choice and intention is clearly communicated. Both, the saying ‘no’ and the being transparent about your own reasoning, requires some courage since in a first instance, you’re withholding agreement or cooperation.
If the recipient of the ‘no’ doesn’t practice conscious choice himself/herself, the time-wasting task may just land on someone else’s shoulders. In order for a conscious ‘no’ to bring about beneficial changes, enough people in an organisation or team - and especially people with decision-making power - need to listen to their own conscious reasoning and that of their co-workers, and they need to act on the ‘no’s’: Not by trying to get the time-waster done in some other way, by some other person, or by some other team, but by creating change that will eliminate the time-waster for good.
This will free up time to say ‘yes’ to purposeful tasks and it will allow organisation to move forward instead of treading water on the spot.
In my coaching, I work with people who are ready to consciously choose what they are saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in order to purposefully live their lives without regrets.
(1) Wong, Kristin. (2017). “Why You Should Learn to Say ‘No’ More Often” in New York Times Smarter Living, May 8, 2017 under https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/smarter-living/why-you-should-learn-to-say-no-more-often.html