Sometimes, the answer is no. Respectfully, I must decline. No, this will not do. Nein. It’s just that I find saying yes is more fun than saying no. In fact, I find “yes” to be a powerful word. “Yes” makes people happy and I enjoy making people happy. I love to give people the green light and let them do wonderful, fulfilling things that satisfy them, things that help them grow and achieve special goals.
But certain behaviors or ideas one may find unacceptable, unsustainable, untrustworthy, or merely unattainable. We find them upsetting or unsavory or unrealistic. To such words or conduct we may even have an intense visceral reaction that literally makes us pull away, as if to shield our offended sensibilities. It may seem counter-intuitive, but think about it—what we reject defines us because our core values, priorities and boundaries often become evident only when they are challenged. Saying no to requests that compromise one’s values announces and reconfirms those values.
Saying no not only represents the conviction to honor one’s own values, priorities, self-respect, or boundaries, but can also be about conserving and managing one’s energy, time and other resources. To politely refuse certain invitations allows one to direct energy and attention to people and activities that matter most. Saying no is strategic.
Now, let’s be honest—saying “no” to a VIP, especially when the VIP is a paying client, carries risk. Certain powerful people have the ability to make an offer that cannot be refused (at least not without damage). Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to explore ways to decline that which we dislike, mistrust, or just find inconvenient for some reason. Disappointing someone whom one would much rather please is stressful. Think of it this way—when you feel it necessary to voice doubts about a strategy or proposal makes your expertise, insights and values known to colleagues and keeps you true to yourself. You may also prevent an ill-conceived idea from gaining support (maybe because others were not inclined to speak out?) and causing an ugly crash and burn somewhere down the line.
Tact and diplomacy will be needed when saying no to a VIP, no doubt about it. Pour oil on potentially rough waters to head off the appearance of insubordination and ensure that disappointment doesn’t escalate to insult. Take care to separate your discomfort with supporting a certain strategy or participating in a proposed project from your feelings about the people involved. Make it strictly business and emphasize that you support the organization, its mission and history. Below are suggestions for how one might diplomatically say no and not burn bridges:
- Provide facts. Don’t simply say “no.” Express the reasoning behind your decision. Most importantly, communicate the values that influenced your decision. If you don’t provide the context, others will do it for you, and the picture they paint might not be pretty. Unflattering motives could be assigned to you and your reputation is sure to suffer as a result. Don’t create a mystery for others to solve. Cite data and share the motivations that led to your position.
- Acknowledge values trade-offs. Let others know that you respect the priorities they aim to promote. Decisions are rarely as simple as black and white, right and wrong. They typically involve value trade-offs. To soften your “no” vote and avoid unnecessary offense, remember to compliment the worthy values that may motivate others’ positions.
- Be tentatively confident. It’s important to take a firm stand, but avoid appearing intransigent or aggressive. You’ll alienate more people than you’ll convince if you make absolutist statements. Show that you’re a thoughtful person who has arrived at a reasonable conclusion. Opening statements such as, “I’ve researched the matter and learned…” and “I believe…” demonstrate a combination of resolve and humility that avoids provoking unnecessary conflict.
- Ask for permission to say no. When saying no to a VIP, particularly someone who might misinterpret your refusal as disrespect, it can be helpful to ask permission to say no. This allows you to honor their authority while maintaining your integrity. For example, you could say, “Boss, you’ve asked me to take on a new project. I think it is a bad idea for me to take it on and I’d like to share my reasons. If, however, you don’t want to hear them, I’ll take it on and do my best. What would you like?” In most cases, the boss will feel obligated to hear you out. If the boss refuses to hear your reservations, you might decide to say no to continuing your employment there!
Thanks for reading,
Photograph: L-R Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson The Supremes sing Stop in the Name of Love in 1965.