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HBX Business Blog

How to Take the Sting Out of Saying ‘No’

Posted by Patrick Mullane on September 20, 2016 at 10:12 AM


This article was originally posted to Fortune Insiders and can be found here.

If you, like me, have children, you’ve probably become convinced that the most common word in the English language is “no.” In fact, you may have concluded that “no” is the perfect sentence unto itself — no modifiers, adverbs, or adjectives needed. It’s always on the tip of the tongue with offspring around, no matter the question. “Dad, can I …” “NO!”

The word is also one that children learn to use frequently because of how prolific we parents are in uttering it. It is among the most common first words an infant says. They say it to siblings, to us, and to playmates. It’s just so easy to say — until, that is, we become adults in the working world.

At that point, the word seems to get lost. Why? Warren Buffett famously said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” But if that’s true, then why does the word go missing from our vocabulary? Why do we become selectively dumbstruck?

Volumes have been written about this, but the most common explanation is that we are wired to avoid conflict and to seek approval from those around us. So we often say “yes” even when we don’t mean it. In almost all situations, this is bad. A wedding proposal, a request to do something shady, agreeing to pick up somebody at the airport — saying yes when we don’t mean it can be a really miserable experience.

So, how do we say no? If you accept the premise of why it’s hard to say, then you need to find ways to lessen the likelihood of creating a conflict or disappointing someone.

First, remember that saying “no” by itself is almost always provocative. So one key is to provide context when responding to a question or request. People are much more likely to accept a “no” when they understand the train of thought that led to your response. “No” or “I can’t” should always be followed by a “because” clause. For example: “No, I’m not going to be able to get that report done by Tuesday because I’m concerned that rushing it will mean we have inaccurate data.”

I’m not suggesting that such an answer will always be well-received. Interactions between humans are rarely that simple. But by providing a “because,” you have offered information that can be the basis of a discussion if the other side pushes the issue. Without this qualifier, defenses immediately come up and all parties can quickly feel aggrieved.

In addition to explaining your refusal, saying “no” can be more effective if the word “no” is never actually part of the response. In place of it, use information and data to lead the requester to understand they are being turned down.

Using the example from above, let’s suppose my boss asks me if I can get the monthly production report done by Tuesday. The response I suggested above still has a bite to it because it begins with “no.” What if, instead, you responded, “I’m not sure if you know, but I need to gather information from our global sites and I’m concerned that if we don’t give them time to respond, the report will be less useful.” As long as the information presented is legitimate, this can be an effective way to respond without ever having to say the dreaded “no.”

Take it from Mahatma Gandhi: “A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”


About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of HBX and is responsible for managing HBX’s growth and long-term success. A military veteran and alumnus of Harvard Business School, Patrick is passionate about finding ways to use technology to enhance the mission of the School - to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.

Topics: HBX Insights, Executive Insights