Principle 28: Learn to gracefully say no so that you can say yes when it matters the most. Prioritize and don’t overcommit…just say no.
Harvard Business Review published an article in 2013 entitled “Nine Practices to Help You Say No”. One of the best phrases in the article was “know your no”. Know what things you are not willing to compromise on in your profession or your industry. People in business understand that your no is a rejection of the request and not a personal rejection of the person. Learning to say no keeps you from overcommitting your time and energies on things that draw you away from your most important areas of focus. No one loves to hear it. The two letter word that portends the closing of a door. It tests our persistence and brings us disappointment. Those who have to say it feel bad because in most cases we’d love to say yes and fulfill every commitment that comes our way. There is an art to learning to say no. BBC Capital featured Warren Buffet in their article, “Why Saying No Will Boost Your Career”. Buffet is quoted in the article as saying the “difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” I’m certain he gets solicitations to invest in a range of business ventures, but he gracefully declines the lion’s share of them to focus on a select set of investments that he watches closely.
The ‘no’ becomes somewhat more palatable when we frame it in a clear context, with reasons. Seasoning the no with reasoning eases the sting of it a bit. Coupling the no with a change in time or circumstances also helps get beyond an impasse. Perhaps the idea is a great one but the timing is problematic. But no matter how you slice it, ‘no’ is the two-letter word that we usually aren’t prepared to hear.
I confronted and overcame my issue with ‘no’ within a week of graduating from college. Three days after walking across the stage at Georgia Southern University, I found myself walking up and down the streets of Manhattan with a briefcase looking for work in the financial district. My only work experience was in retail during my college years. Interview after interview with staffing agencies and financial firms all led to the same answer: no. But something was happening in the process. My interviewing skills become stronger with each rejection. I was gaining insight on what they were going to ask and I was able to rethink my responses. Then the offers started to come in. So the word ‘no’ helped me to pull back, regroup, and come out stronger than before. The no was actually a “not yet” or “not now”.
As a principal, there are always questions from vendors about a new program, a consultant with a service to offer, or a parent with a request. Without fail, one has to often figure out how to tactfully frame the no in a way that explains the context. That comes with time and once mastered, it is a key to keeping your eye on the ball and your head in the game. Saying yes too often can pull one in so many directions that you lose focus. The challenge is when the request is reframed 7 ways, yet your response to the request is the same. Then, a leader has to either fluently find 7 ways to reframe the no or use the repetition method and repeat the initial response.
The bottom line is that no is a troublesome little word that carries with it lots of repercussions and emotions. Is it easy to receive it? No. Will it always be easy to say it? No. Can we avoid it?
No. (Not yet.)