How To Say No And Make It Stick

Business Edge-smart growth strategies-marciaby Marcia Zidle, Columnist & Featured Contributor

In my blog post Work Smarter Not Harder, I ask , “What causes you the most grief?

  1. The enemy out there (an unexpected crisis, others not meeting deadlines) or
  2. The enemy within (poor planning, procrastination, lack of assertiveness).

I would imagine for many of us it’s the enemy within – our inability to say no and make it stick.

Peter Bergman, in his Harvard Business Blog  shares nine practices to help you say a strategic “no” in order to create space in your life for a more intentional “yes.”

Which Ones Can You Start Practicing Now?

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1. Know your no.

Identify what’s important to you and acknowledge what’s not. If you don’t know where you want to spend your time, you won’t know where you don’t want to spend your time. Before you can say no with confidence, you have to be clear that you want to say no.

2. Be appreciative.

When people ask for your help it’s usually because they trust you and they believe in your capabilities to help. So thank them for thinking of you or making the request/invitation. You can leave the door open by saying I can’t do it now, but get back to me at a specific time – that’s only if you mean it.

3. Say no to the request, not the person.

YES-no-decision-decisionsYou’re not rejecting the person, just declining the request. So make that clear. You can also explain the reason. Maybe you’re too busy. Maybe you don’t feel like what they’re asking you to do plays to your strengths. Be honest about why you’re saying no.

4. Explain why.

People may or may not be interested in your reason or reasons. What matters most is having a reason you buy into – that’s important to you – and you’re comfortable explaining it. Maybe you’re too busy. Maybe you don’t feel like what they’re asking you to do plays to your strengths. Hopefully, that will be enough to allow the person to say something like, “I understand” or “Can I come back to you at a later date”. However if not then see the next one.

5. Be as resolute as they are pushy.

Some people don’t give up easily. That’s their prerogative. And yours is to be just as pushy as they are. You can make light of it if you want (“I know you don’t give up easily — but neither do I. I’m getting better at saying no.”).

6. Practice

Choose some easy, low-risk situations in which to practice saying no. Say no when a waiter offers you dessert. Say no when someone tries to sell you something on the street. Go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and say no out loud ten times. It sounds crazy, but building your no muscle helps.

7. Establish a pre-emptive no.

We all have certain people in our lives who tend to make repeated, sometimes burdensome requests of us. In those cases, it’s better to say no before the request even comes in. Let that person know that you’re hyper-focused on a couple of things in your life and trying to reduce your obligations in all other areas.

8. Be prepared to miss out.

Some of us have a hard time saying no because we hate to miss an opportunity. And saying no always leads to a missed opportunity. But it’s not just a missed opportunity; it’s a tradeoff. Remind yourself that when you’re saying no to the request, you are simultaneously saying yes to something you value more than the request. Both are opportunities. You’re just choosing one over the other.

9. Gather your permission and courage.

If you’re someone who is used to saying yes, it will take courage to say no. You might feel you’re letting someone down or not living up to expectations. Maybe you’ll imagine that you’ll be seen or talked about in a negative light. That may or may not happen. It could be our self-limiting beliefs rather than reality. Have faith in your decisions.[/message]

Smart Moves Tip:

Even when you’ve said yes, you can change your mind and renegotiate. Find a substitute, change the deadline or scope of the request or whatever might work to keep you in good graces. Remember, things change – projects pushed up; a staff member is out for a month; or a new boss unexpectedly arrives. Life changes and so priorities change. So don’t get locked into” I have to do it” because I said yes.

How often do you say yes when you mean no? Is it more often in your professional or personal life?  What’s the enemy within that’s stopping you from saying no and making it stick? Do you want to get better at it? 


Marcia Zidle
Marcia Zidle
Marcia Zidle, The Smart Moves Coach, is a national known board certified coach and keynote leadership speaker who guides organizations that are planning, or in the midst of, ambitious growth and change. As a career strategist, she works with professionals, managers and executives who want to build • shape • brand • change • vitalize their careers. She’s been selected by LinkedIn’s ProFinder as one of the best coaches for 2016!Her clients range from private owned businesses to mid-market companies to professional service firms to NGO’s. With 25 years of management, business consulting and international experience, she brings an expertise in executive and team leadership; employee engagement and innovation; personal and organization change; career building and development; emotional and social intelligence. Your Future Starts Now With Marcia!

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  1. These are all good tips, Marcia. Thank you for sharing your wise advice.
    I don’t have much trouble with an initial No. It is much tougher to change my answer to no once I have said yes. When yes is impossible I have no choice, but changing my yes to no is always painful.