At work, what's the right way to say no?

Saying no is one of the hardest things I had to learn how to do. While being busy makes us feel crazy, it also makes us feel important. Very important. So we talk about how many emails we receive each day – the more we get the more important we are. Then we complain about how we can’t find time on our calendars to do the things we want to do. There’s never enough time and it can be tough to let go of our attachment to the “badge of busyness.”

Once we do though, we stop trying to do everything and begin doing the things that matter. Maia Heymann, the managing partner of Converge Venture Partners, woke me up to the truth about busyness. She talks about seeking “fullness, not busyness.” If we want fullness, we need to choose the things that fill us up and not the things that make us feel frantic. When we’re busy constantly doing something, there aren’t any openings for fullness or creativity to twinkle in and illuminate opportunity.

To find those openings, we need to learn how to say no. Here’s an easy approach from Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: “If the answer isn’t a definite yes, it should be a no.” Okay, you might want a little more guidance. I know I did. That guilt about saying no to a high profile networking event, an opportunity to sit on a corporate board, or the chance to meet an influential politician can eat you alive. Don’t get me wrong, you should show up for the events that matter, but it’s too easy to believe they all matter. To know how to prioritize them, try writing down your goals. I carry mine with me – three personal and three professional – which makes it easy to know which requests and invitations are the right ones to help me travel in the right direction.

Once I knew my goals, saying no got a lot easier, and I started doing the things I’d always dreamed of doing. Like writing a book. I started choosing just one work event at night per week so I could spend time with my family. I said yes to the things at work that helped me recruit or retain top employees and recruit or retain great clients. This means I say no to small things like invitations to get coffee and bigger things like offers to join boards of directors.

I also say no to certain types of client work. A few years ago, a colleague with whom my public relations firm, InkHouse, worked closely asked if we’d be willing to offer some in-kind work in exchange for sponsorship for an organization that would give us a direct line to a type of client we’d like to work with. After weighing the options – this would be good exposure for InkHouse, but I didn’t know if we had the resources – I declined the opportunity. I knew that if we took on this project without the proper resources, a sub-par job –would burn the bridge and turn out to be worse than if we’d just said no in the first place.

How you say no matters immensely, though. Honesty, kindness and respect trump disappointment every time. And if you are wishy-washy, it will never work. You must be confident about saying no without insulting the recipient. For example, you could say, “I respect what you are trying to do so much and would like to be involved at another time and place, but…” There are lots of “buts” that work here:

  • “but we don’t have the adequate resources to be successful.”
  • “but I don’t have the right expertise to do this as well as it deserves to be done.”
  • “but I take my girls to dinner on Tuesday nights.”
  • “but I am already committed to a few boards and I need to give them the attention I promised.”
  • “but I’m writing a book/running a marathon/running the PTO this year and need to prioritize if I have any hope of doing it well.”

Lastly, remember that you can say no without shutting the door permanently. Once I started saying no, I found that when I stopped trying to do everything, I found the room I needed to do anything.

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