Recall your first job. You wanted to prove to your boss that you’re capable, that you’re eager to learn new things, and that you can be trusted. So you say yes to all the tasks that come your way. Those days were tough, but it got you to where you are right now.
Perhaps you’re now managing people and projects, or you’re running your own company. You can’t just approve every project proposal or say yes to every dinner invitation. Everything you do needs to be aligned with growing your career or your business, with improving your life outside the four walls of work, with improving your relationships.
Your yes is so valuable, you have to learn to protect it at all costs. How?
Let’s talk about the art of saying no.
The Art of Saying No
Steve Jobs used to ask Apple’s design chief, Jony Ive, this question every day: “How many times did you say no today?” It was Jobs’ ability to decide when to say no that made him a successful person.
So when do you refuse? Here are four questions you need to ask yourself to find out if something is worth declining:
Does it align with my priorities? If a project or an event doesn’t fit in your long-term or short-term priorities, you might as well turn down the invitation. What’s the point of doing it if it doesn’t serve your business’s purpose?
Does it align with my values? When you are offered a partnership or a project, check your company values or the personal values you uphold. If it doesn’t promote your values, then it’s not worth saying yes to.
Am I the right person to work on it? Check if you’re the right person for the task. Perhaps the person who approached you didn’t know that the right person to go to for this project is in another department.
Do I have everything I need to get started? There’s no point starting a project or a task if you don’t have all the necessary information in order to deal with it.
How to Say No the Right Way
Say no to some things in order to say yes to greater things — this is the key to making your best work yet. But the way you say no is equally important as why you say it. How do you refuse a project or an invitation rightly, without burning bridges or hurting the other person?
Karen Dillon, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life, and Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate, share these valuable steps with Harvard Business Review.
- Be up-front. Some people might think that it would be better to just give the “lighter” version of the real reason for turning down an invitation. The reality is, you could come off as insincere. And you don’t want that. If your circumstances won’t permit you to accept, be honest about your reason. Make sure the person knows the context of why you’re declining.
- Be firm, but compassionate. When you say no, don’t sound reluctant, like you could change your mind if the other person just keeps pushing. Own what you’re saying. Practise saying no and listen to yourself. Do you say it with tact? Does the way you say it command respect? Also place yourself in the other person’s shoes. Your response won’t be ideal, but if you are being sympathetic about it, your counterpart will be able to accept your reasoning.
- Offer what support you can give. Even if you’ve turned down the request, ask if there’s any other way you can be helpful to that person. You can offer sound advice or give feedback or participate in the initial stages of the project.
- Prepare for negative feedback. While declining an offer or an invitation creates a space for you to do greater, more productive things, it is quite unpleasant and frustrating for the person who sought for your attendance or your help.
Time is a luxury that leaders don’t have in abundance.
So know what’s important for you and your business, manage and focus on your priorities, and say no to the rest.
Saying no to an opportunity means you will miss out on that opportunity. And that’s okay. Remember, when you are declining a request, you are actually saying yes to something that holds more weight and value.
As Steve Jobs once said, “Focus is about saying no. And the result of that focus is gonna be some really great products where the total is much greater than the sum of the parts”.