I have had the great privilege of coaching 150+ corporate executives so far, including c-level as well as middle/senior management. It has given me amazing insights into diverse thought processes, strengths and development areas of people. However, surprisingly, I have noticed that some development opportunities are common across levels. On top of the list is the inability to say no even if the person is buried under heavy workload and commitments. I look back and here is what I would like to share.

In every conversation related to ‘I can’t say no‘, digging into this issue brought out the following three reasons.

  1. Saying yes is gratifying as it helps build the perception of being sensitive and helpful—something that could help during bad times as well as in career advancement.
  2. Fear that the other person might hold a grudge and play dirty politics,
  3. Fear of a career setback, especially if the requester is a senior person or the reporting manager.

So, I asked a few more questions.

  1. I asked each of these coachees to assess if reason #1 had actually helped them in their career. As expected, the answer was either no or not sure. I was not at all surprised when some of them expressed frustration, saying that they felt as if they were being taken for granted.
  2. My second question was whether they were ever forced to turn down a request because of some personal emergency; and if yes, whether it resulted in any setback (reason #2 or 3 above). Most of them confirmed having said no under such circumstances, and not even one person recalled being a victim of politics or grudge as a result of his/her action.

However, what was shocking is that in spite of this awareness, there was still some unknown fear holding them back when their hearts wanted to say no.

Anyway, the good news—as experienced by my coachees—is that this can be addressed easily with a clear perspective. Just remember the following points and say no next time without any hesitation or fear.

  • Check one final time if you really want to say no, i.e., you are not compromising on organization’s interests by sticking to your own list of priorities. If you have to say no, then–
  • Be respectful and show empathy to the other person.
  • Say things like –
    • “I would have loved to help you, but I really need to be excused today. Unfortunately, I have several important deliverables stacked up and I am already running out of time. I don’t want to look bad and cause inconvenience to you later as I know for sure that I won’t be able to do it within the expected timeline.”
    • Offer some alternative, e.g., “Can this wait until next Tue? In that case, I can block some time for it right away. But if you want me to give it priority, then I am sorry—I must be excused.”
    • Offer another alternative, e.g., “By the way, I know someone who could help, or there is a website where you could get online help. Would you like me to share some details with you?”
  • Be crisp and to-the-point, watch your body language and maintain eye contact. Just visualize how you would have said no if there was a genuine personal emergency.
  • Don’t be over-apologetic as this may invite push-back from the other person.
  • Always remember that you are saying no to the request, not the person. Don’t mix up professional and personal stuff.
  • If the requester is a senior person or your boss, be transparent and seek help on re-prioritizing things.

I can say this with my own experience that people will walk away from your office with respect, even after hearing no from you. Today I can say this with even more confidence as most of my coachees have already overcome this challenge, and don’t feel terrified anymore.

Say ‘no’, if your heart does not say ‘yes’.

Try it next time. You will be amazed to see that it actually works 🙂