Saying No to Focus on What’s Really Important

Pete Drucker said that “people are effective because they say no.” If that is true, why is saying no so hard? Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, says that it is hard because 1) we lack clarity about what is essential in our lives, and 2) saying no is awkward. We want to get along with people. We feel guilty saying no. We don’t want to let someone down. However, to focus on what’s important in our lives, we must learn to say no.

Essentialism is one of my favorite new books. Greg McKeown offers tips on how to build the courage to say no gracefully.

  1. 1. Separate the decision from the relationship. This has been helpful for me. Sometimes I want to say yes to ‘Claire’ because my friendship with her is important. Separating ‘Claire’s’ request from our friendship allows me to say no when I need to.
  2. 2. Saying no gracefully doesn’t have to mean using the word no. A blunt no is sometimes warranted, but I find it easier to use over-committed, beyond capacity now, or “I can’t take on anything else right now.” It softens the no.
  3. 3. Focus on the trade-off. This is epitomized by a statement a woman told me when I was trying to recruit her to a committee. She said, “every minute I give to this committee is one more minute I take away from my family, and I’m not willing to do that right now.”  What will you have to give up if you said yes?
  4. 4. Remind yourself that everyone is selling something. Being aware of what’s being sold to you (an idea, a viewpoint, an opinion) makes you more deliberate in deciding whether you want to say yes.
  5. 5. Make your peace with the fact that saying no often requires trading popularity for respect. There may be a short-term cost to saying no, but there is often long-term respect earned. I respect people with clear boundaries they are committed to upholding.
  6. 6. Remember that a clear no can be more graceful than a vague or noncommittal yes. Being vague or noncommittal doesn’t help the person asking and often just strings them along.

A few ways to say no from The Society for Recovering Doormats

  1. 1. No
  2. 2. I can’t give you an answer right now, will you check back with me. (The delay gives you time to evaluate the request.)

3. I’m not able to commit to that right now.

4. I really appreciate you asking me, but I can’t do it.

5. I understand you really need my help, but I’m just not able to say yes to that.

6. I’m going to say no for now. I’ll let you know if something changes.

7. I’m honored that you would ask me, but my answer is no.

8. No, I can’t do that, but here’s what I can do.

9. I don’t have that to give right now.

10. Under different circumstances, I’d love to, but right now I can’t.

A friend once told me that if you are truly committed to finding balance in your life, you must be willing to disappoint people you care about. Finding the courage and words to say no is hard. However, once we learn these skills, it frees us to focus on what really matters in our work and in our personal lives. When we do that, we are more successful and will excel at what matters most.

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