Most of us don't enjoy saying no, but sometimes we have to. Here's how to be polite but steadfast in your refusals
Posted on Harvard Management Update: Thursday, March 12 10:28 AM
No one likes hearing "No," and few can resist pushing back—sometimes quite persistently. Roger Fisher, negotiation expert and coauthor of the widely influential book Getting to Yes, used to tell his law students that sometimes he wished he had written a book about getting to no and staying there. When disappointed family members or colleagues pushed back at his no, he would sometimes give up and give in.
Like Fisher, most of us find ourselves torn between our wish to stay with no and our desire to accommodate the person asking us for something. This tension is particularly acute when that person is a valued client or a senior colleague.
When we say no and find ourselves pressured to unsay it, we can of course just give in. But giving in, especially when it becomes a habit, can seriously damage our credibility and effectiveness as professionals. Here is how to say no in a way that both conveys your resolve and preserves your relationships.
Use a Neutral No
To say no and stay with it requires defusing emotion on both sides: our discomfort at staying with an unpopular no and our counterpart's irritation, disappointment, or anger at hearing it. Use a neutral no to turn down the emotional temperature.
A neutral no is steady, uninflected, and clear. It's mostly illustrated by what it's not. It's not harsh, it's not pugnacious or apologetic, it's not reluctant or heavily buffered, and it's not overly nice. Neutral and nice are not the same. Even if you're nice, use neutral to stay with no. By sticking with neutral, you're concentrating on the business end of no, not the personal.
You want a referee's manner. A ref just says what he says—good news for some, bad news for others—regardless of the strong feelings on both sides that his message may inspire. His job is to give his message neutrally and stay with it neutrally if challenged.
A neutral manner doesn't prevent you from speaking directly about the friction your no creates. "It's hard for me to tell you no; it must be hard for you to hear" is consistent with neutral. If you know or suspect why your counterpart is resisting your no, acknowledge his concern honestly but without giving hope. "You have a lot invested in what you're asking, and it looks like I'm personally blocking you." Give a reason or justification for your no. "I see my job as balancing valid, but competing, needs. I'm focusing on that."
A neutral manner doesn't prevent you from speaking directly about the friction your no creates. If you know or suspect why your counterpart is resisting your no, acknowledge his concern honestly but without giving hope.
When explaining why you're saying no, don't volley different arguments with your counterpart. This just confuses both of you. If you have time to prepare for this conversation, have a consistent, cogent argument at the ready.
In some cases, you may want to tell your counterpart what you could say yes to. That's not a foundation of staying with no, it's an option and the beginning of a negotiation. If you're open to that, you don't have to wait for the counterpart to ask.
Explain the Real Reason You're Saying No
Sometimes people hold back from explaining the real reason for their no, substituting instead lighter-weight reasons that they think their counterpart will find more palatable. The problem with this is that their counterpart usually finds it easy to swat away those lightweight reasons because they aren't very persuasive. To limit the frustration on both sides, give reasons with good weight up front.
A junior analyst had been helping out a colleague by taking on some of his work when he was crunched. The problem was that she soon became swamped herself and the quality of her work was suffering. The next time he asked for her customary help, she said, "I have to say no—I don't seem to be managing my time very well right now." Her colleague disagreed; he said he thought she did a great job managing her time. Not accepting that she had a time-management problem, her colleague also didn't accept her no.
Don't Give False Hope
Staying with no tentatively, or with a show of reluctance, makes it easy for your counterpart to hope you will change your no—and hard for him to accept the no. It sounds like your no is on the edge of tipping over into yes, so your counterpart is encouraged to keep pushing.
Avoid a Battlefront Attitude
Not everyone tries to soften her no. Some of us say no combatively, and treat staying with no as escalating warfare. When staying with no feels like a triumph of the will, good outcomes—and good judgment—are in jeopardy.
Know Your Triggers
Your counterpart may try out different tactics to get you to yes your no. Does an ominous suggestion that the union will hear about this roll off you or rattle you? Do tears move you to offer a tissue or to fold? Clarifying for yourself ahead of time where your vulnerabilities lie helps you resist your counterpart's tactics.
Practice Staying with No
If you want to get better at staying with no in the face of your counterpart's resistance to it, practice with someone who will play the part of your worst nightmare in a protected setting. That way, you'll be well prepared for when a real situation arises, when a lot is on the line.