The importance of saying ‘no’

When is it good to say ‘no’? Not just necessary, but actually good? When is ‘no’ a better answer than ‘yes’?

I’ve been using Lent as an opportunity to practice saying ‘no’. I must admit, some days are easier than others. Saying ‘no’ to further automated sales calls by adding the number to my block list was particularly satisfying. Taking myself straight off a group that a well-meaning friend had added me to was also relatively painless and saved me numerous ‘no’s further down the line.

It’s making me more mindful of what I commit to, what I can un-commit from and where I can renegotiate my commitments. It has also made me much more aware of what happens when you don’t say ‘no’ often enough.

I’ve blogged before about the dangers of saying yes to everything, and what happens when you try to please everybody – and the impact this has on your own productivity.

But not being able to say ‘no’ can have a big impact on other people’s productivity as well.

It happened to two of my friends this week, when they found out that the person who had agreed to write the foreword for their book, had pulled out at the eleventh hour – after his name had been on the cover for the past four months.

They had initially been delighted when this particular person – someone well respected in their field – replied personally and positively to their request, but after subsequent unanswered emails and much chasing and persistence, they finally heard from his PA that he was “too busy” – two months after the deadline.

Had he said ‘no’ from the outset, they would have had plenty of time to approach other people, there would not be the awkwardness (for both parties involved) of having publicised his name on the cover of the book, and most of all, any initial disappointment would have been temporary, with little collateral damage.

Had he said ‘no’ when he realised he was overcommitted (or indeed if there was a misunderstanding over what had been agreed) when the first reminder email arrived, there would have still been time to recover the mistake.

The longer that ‘no’ was delayed, the more costly it became.

The thing is, as one of my friends said, this person is probably “a good man who just isn’t very organised” He’s probably the sort of person who’d genuinely want to have read the manuscript before writing the foreword – someone who likes to take his commitments seriously. But this time, his eagerness to say ‘yes’ backfired, and led to him failing to honour his commitment.

Our reluctance to say ‘no’ often comes from fear: fear of missing out; fear of what others might think; fear of disappointing, offending, letting someone down or compromising our integrity. But that can be precisely what happens when we fail to say ‘no’ quickly and clearly.

Our desire to say ‘yes’ often comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, liked and involved.

Yet saying no can sometimes be the kindest, most helpful contribution we can make.

A clear ‘no’ up front releases the other person to seek alternative solutions.

I remember someone giving me some business advice a while ago, to “fail fast and fail often” because failure is inevitable, so the more we embrace it rather than avoid it, the quicker we get to success.

Perhaps the same principle can also hold true for saying no. Say no, quickly, clearly and often. Because you will have to say no to many things, in order to get to the yeses. And the longer you leave it, the more it will cost – for you and the person you’re trying not to disappoint.

So, when is ‘no’ a better answer than ‘yes’? When it’s a clear, honest, wholehearted ‘no’ rather than a halfhearted yes – or even a hopeful yes.

Now there’s a challenge…

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