Here's how successful people say 'no' without offending anyone

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Getting better at saying no has been a big learning curve for me. I get a lot of requests from all sorts of people wanting to have a coffee or pick my brain or speak at an event. I used to say yes to most things or feel really guilty if I did say no. But this year, I’ve actually switched things around and have no as my default. Unless something is a “hell, yes”, I generally politely decline.

Through the podcast How I Work, I have spoken to dozens of successful entrepreneurs, business people, writers, and innovators about how they say no. To make sure that they don’t spend their lives reacting to other people’s stuff and prioritise their own goals, almost everyone I have spoken to has very deliberate strategies for deciding what to say no to. And they also have strategies for how to make saying no a bit easier.

They think about what they are uniquely best placed to say yes to

For Wharton Professor and best-selling author Adam Grant, being clear on what he is uniquely best placed to help with has made it easier to determine what he says yes to and what he says no to.

“What I tried to do is break down all the different ways that I was trying to say yes to people and figure out which ones I enjoyed and excelled at,” says Grant. “If people are asking for help in domains where I didn’t feel like I had a unique contribution to make, or it was exhausting me, I knew that over time that meant I was going to have less impact.”

For Grant, this has meant zooming in on two things: knowledge sharing and connecting people.

“There’s almost nothing that brightens my inbox more than somebody reaching out and saying, ‘I had this question about something related to work psychology. Has anybody ever studied fill in the blank?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, there’s a chance to take all that esoteric information that I’m collecting from academic journals and share it with somebody who might be curious about it or who can apply it in some way.’

They have hard and fast rules

The decision of whether to say yes or no can be a time consuming one, especially when requests for your time are frequent. Mia Freedman, the co-founder and creative director of the Mamamia Women’s Network, Australia’s largest digital women’s media company, has found ‘rules’ to be the key to saying no.

“What I found really helped is having rules and not saying, ‘I can’t,’ but saying, ‘I don’t.’ It sounds really subtle, but it’s really relevant. So for example, I don’t do black tie functions. I don’t do lunches during the week. I don’t do premiers,” describes Freedman.

“I find that those hard and fast rules help so much in all aspects of life. I exercise every day because that’s easier than exercising two or three times a week. It’s less mental stress on me because it’s just a non-negotiable. It’s like cleaning your teeth. I’m one of those people that needs to do it, needs hard and fast rules. Otherwise I find myself negotiating with myself, and that’s exhausting.”

They give ‘clean’ nos

When people ask for something, it can be easy to give an ambiguous no. This might involve saying that you are busy and you’ll get back to them later, or that you will think about it (although have every intention of saying no when you can summon up the guts).

Rachel Botsman, author of bestselling books “Who Can You Trust?” and “What’s Mine Is Yours”, aims to give a clean no. A clean no involves simply saying “no”.

“Often it’s better when it doesn’t come from me,” explains Botsman. “My assistant will say ‘She’s just not available’ without giving a reason”.

By providing a clean no, Botsman avoids the awkward and time consuming back and forth that can happen when giving an ambiguous no.

They have no-go days

For Bostman, who juggles her busy schedule with two children, having no-go days in the calendar also makes saying no easier.

“On my calendar are absolute no-go days, such as my kids’ first day of school. It’s different for different people, but no-go days are no-go days.”

Being clear on what your no-go days are and blocking them out in your calendar can make the decision to say no in a polite manner a lot easier.

Keep it brief but clear

Sarah Green Carmichel, executive editor at Harvard Business Review, has to say no a lot, especially when writing rejection letters to book and article proposals.

“I try to always be brief, clear and to give a reason,” describes Carmichael. “People are just looking for a yes or no answer. I try to give some reason, even if it’s not detailed feedback and then just thank them again. I always try to keep in mind that people can forward these emails to anyone. Once I send that email, it’s out there in the world. I want the person reading it to have an okay experience, given that they’re being rejected. I want to treat people kindly and with compassion.”

So rather than feeling like you need to provide a detailed explanation or justification behind every no, sometimes the simplest answer can often be the best.

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.

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