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Mar 12, 2007

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Learn the Art of Saying NO

“NO” is a two-letter word but one of the most powerful words
in leadership, management, and career growth. Learning to say
No when you really want to is one of the important skills in work
survival. It is not a negative mindset of avoiding work. Instead,
it is a way of gaining control over your work and personal life,
making work fit into your purpose of life, and seeking fulfillment
and job satisfaction.


The Man and His Two Wives

In the old days, when men were allowed to have many wives, a
middle-aged Man had one wife that was old and one that was
young; each loved him very much, and desired to see him like

Now the Man's hair was turning grey, which the young Wife did
not like, as it made him look too old for her husband. So every
night she used to comb his hair and pick out the white ones. But
the elder Wife saw her husband growing grey with great pleasure,
for she did not like to be mistaken for his mother. So every
morning she used to arrange his hair and pick out as many of the
black ones as she could. The consequence was the Man soon
found himself entirely bald.


Yield to all and you will soon have nothing to yield.

He that submits his principles to the influence and caprices of
opposite parties will end in having no principles at all.

Quotable Quotes:

“What is a rebel? A man who says no.” ... Albert Camus

“'Then you should say what you mean,' the March Hare
went on.
'I do,' Alice hastily replied; 'at least – at least I mean what

I say – that's the same thing, you know.'
'Not the same thing a bit!' said the Hatter. 'Why, you

might just as well say that I see what I eat is the same
thing as I eat what I see!'” ... Lewis Carroll

“If a lady says No, she means Perhaps; if she says
Perhaps, she means Yes; if she says Yes, she is no Lady.
If a diplomat says Yes, he means Perhaps; if he says

Perhaps, he means No; if he says No, he is no Diplomat.”
... Lord Bertrand Dawson

“No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they
mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.”
... Henry Brooks Adams

“You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer
yes without having asked any clear question.”
... Albert Camus

“I say what I mean, you hear what I say. That is the
end of it.” ... Barbara Cassani

[browse collection of quotes and quotations]

Lessons in life:

Do you view people who say Yes as cooperative and those who
say No as rebellious? For some strange reasons, it is easier to
say No to family members or close friends than to office
colleagues or clients. At exit interviews, most of the feedback
raised by employees relating to unhappiness at work had to do
with their inability to refuse, reject, or disagree.

Many staff and office workers feel the pressure and stress
whenever they are approached by their bosses or senior
colleagues for work favors. Deep in their hearts, they would have
preferred to say No, either because they are already up to their
necks with work, have prior commitments, or simply do not like
the nature of the work favors. This heightens the resentment,
dissatisfaction, and ultimately stress. Work becomes a chore.
Friendship turns into hatred.

Depending on the individual personalities, not being assertive
when required may lead to undesirable consequences. First, not
being able to express his unhappiness in office, the employee
may direct his anger at innocent parties such as his family,
neighbors, bystanders, or even pets. Secondly, the employee
may 'explode' and unleash all he has against the office colleagues
when he is no longer able to handle the pressure. Thirdly, the
employee may turn vengeful against the company. This
vindictive employee may resort to hate mails, sabotage,
manipulation of accounts, whistle-blowing, or anything that can
cause losses, humiliation or disgrace to the company or the
bosses. Fourthly, a quiet introvert may be so depressed as to
contemplate suicide to end the misery. Whatever the
consequences, the employee is likely to be job hopping and
without stability in career, his financial rewards are likely to
be compromised.

While you may think that the employee has himself to blame,
reasonable executives and managers should also review the
work structure. In the new economy, multi-tasking is becoming
a norm. People are valued based on their vast and diversified
skill sets. Secretaries are stenographers, typists, personal
assistants, and in some cases research assistants. Heads of
departments are expected to handle public relations, organize
corporate events, and undertake research projects that do not
fall under the purview of their departments. In most
employment contracts, there is a “catch-all” clause which
essentially stipulates that employees have to undertake any
sort of work that the company requires them to perform. By
defining the roles as vaguely as possible, it is inevitable that
workers feel it is their responsibility to say Yes to anything
that they are asked to do.

The problem with doing the extra work is that often you do
not receive additional benefits or due recognition for your
efforts. If the work is good, the persons who approach you for
the favors get all the credits. If the work is bad, you will be
dragged into the mud and be blamed for all the poor or slipshod
work. Agreeing to take on every request merely eats up your
time to serve their agendas at the expense of your own.

If you find it hard to object or refuse, bear in mind some of
these tips and techniques of saying No:-

1. Be firm and tactful

Couch your answer with tact. Do not start with a No, but try
to build up to that. You do not have to be disagreeable in
order to disagree. Give a straightforward and direct
explanation, and none of the misleading excuses that can
lead the asker to question your decision.

Be firm but polite. Politeness begets politeness. It doesn't
sour relationships as much as an aggressive and contemptuous
No. Humor helps too. Do not apologize, as it shows your
weakness and exposes your feelings of guilt.

If the asker persists and pressurizes you, stick to your firm
stance. Avoid further explanations and never trade insults
should the asker turn abusive. Salesmen, for example, are
trained to manipulate your mind and question your responses
until you run out of answers. Don't allow them to do that. Be in
control. Just stick to your tactful answer, and they will leave
you once they have heard enough of it.

2. Use non-verbal communication

According to Kramer, "94% of our communication is nonverbal"
(Seinfeld, 1998). If you find it difficult to utter a No, use your
body language to convey the message. When you are asked,
give a look that clearly says you are not interested. If it is a
serious topic, smile to give mixed signals. If both the asker and
you are sitting down, do not lean forward to make it seem as if
you are listening intently. Instead, lean back, cross your legs
and fold your arms. Be still, don't nod in agreement. Although
fidgeting is a good indication that you are restless, too much of
that may make you appear rude. Don't ask questions about the
task, since that will let him think you have agreed to do it.

3. Buy time

If you are held to ransom by a robber, terrorist, or kidnapper,
it would be folly to say an outright No to their demands. The
trick of dealing with people like them is to appear to say Yes,
buy time, and avoid giving them what they want. In the same
manner, when dealing with difficult bosses, either delay saying
Yes or play for time. Have the matter channeled through several
other departments to obtain their response. Like a ping-pong ball,
the consultation process will take several days or weeks. By then,
the boss may have had an alternative solution to his problem, or
may no longer need you to work on it.

4. Form a committee

In a typical government bureaucracy, matters that do not have
an obvious solution are buried in committees and task force.
Meetings are time-consuming and mostly unproductive.
Furthermore, when there are several persons working on a
matter, there are usually dissenting voices among them. If you
do not agree on a certain proposition, suggest that a committee
be formed, and let them be the ones saying No to your boss.

5. Seek clearance

Ask if the person has sought clearance from his superiors. In
any matter of importance, there is ought to be a degree of
confidentiality. Suggest that it may not be the CEO's or
Chairman's idea to have such a matter undertaken by you. Bring
in possible areas of conflict of interest, company's hierarchy and
reporting structure, company procedures, and perhaps
regulatory controls, if any. Grab hold of anything to give the
asker second thoughts about approaching you to handle the task.

If you are in a team, let the asker know that you have to seek
clearance from your team members too. The logic is simple. In
undertaking additional work, you have less time for your own
work, thereby forcing your team members to cover your duties.
Keep your fingers crossed that your team members object to
your additional work, and it would be them saying No to the

6. Seek clarifications

The idea is to ask so many questions that the person finds it
easier to do the work himself. Craft your questions as innocently
as what a reasonable person would have asked. Even if you know
the answers, do not assume that you are correct. Afterall, you are
now doing this person a favor, and would not want to mess things
up. If you keep on asking questions in the light of wanting to help
him do a good job, he may not be unhappy with your questions,
but will find it less of a hassle if he were to do the work himself.

7. Ask for a return favor

There is nothing wrong asking for a reciprocal favor. If your
colleague from the marketing department asks you to help out
in a road show they are doing, respond with a Yes, and follow
up immediately with a request that he keeps you company in
office over the weekend while you clear your backlog. Not only
will it give him an idea as to how busy you are, it will make him
rethink as to whether he truly needs your help.

8. Show hands

Reveal your busy work commitments. If you are already tied up
with an important project, let it be known that while you have no
objections handling a new one, you would be splitting your time
between the two projects. As any wise person could conclude, the
possible outcome is that both projects may not be done well. Let
the management decide which project you should place priority
into. Often than not, this is not an easy decision, and chances are
that you will not be saddled with the new project.

9. Strike first

During meetings, it is often the meek who are bullied and
'volunteered' by the powers that be to undertake additional
initiatives. If you see it coming, be the first to show support
but express regret at not being able to handle it due to your tight
work schedule. Use this technique sparingly though. A shrewd
manager may subsequently tie the initiative to a huge reward,
and you would have lost a golden opportunity.

10. Communicate personally

Some people think that it is easier to say No through email and
short messaging system. However, out of respect for the asker,
it is always better to say No in person, face-to-face. It may not
be a pleasant encounter, but which would you prefer to be known
by - a bold and assertive person, or a timid soul who hides behind
the veil of a machine. Your reputation sticks with you throughout
your career.

Related Articles:

Leaders must be decisive

Bosses who want their way
Autocrats, dictators, and dominant bosses
Cope with Work Stress
Workaholics with No Balanced Life

Books worth reading:

Author Randy J. Paterson came up with a self-help program
outlining guided steps in facing confrontations at work and at
home. For proven behavioral techniques to prepare you, build
your self-confidence and assertiveness, this bestseller The
Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and
Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships is a

A best-seller I read some time back, and which I found rather
interesting was this book by Manuel J. Smith, When I Say No,
I Feel Guilty. As the preface went, it was a book about the
techniques of saying No to your kids, oppressive mothers-in-law,
work colleagues, and people in general.

The same author wrote a subsequent book targeted at managers
and executives, titled When I Say No I Feel Guilty, Vol. II, for
Managers and Executives. It contained useful skills for coping
with manipulative coworkers, colleagues, bosses, customers
and business counterparts.

If you should chance by these out-of-print books in your library,
read them for alternative views on why Japan and China should
say No to Western culture and influence.

"The Japan That Can Say No" (1989), an essay co-written by
Sony chairman Akio Morita and politician Shintaro Ishihara,
criticized Japan's lack of assertiveness in business and foreign
affairs. This prompted the title of a bestseller “The China That
Can Say No: Political and Emotional Choices in the post Cold-
War era
” (1996) written by several Chinese nationalists urging
the "fourth-generation" Chinese to say No to Western values in
order to preserve the Chinese heritage.

© Business Fables and Management Lessons

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Jackie said...

Loved the fable.

Lots of good info for the business person. Here there are few secretaries except for Executive Secretaries. Most are now PA's and yes they need to be multi skilled or will never survive.

Franco said...

Hi, im really enjoy reading your blog. Keeps me more aware.

Angela Chen Shui said...

EXCELLENT post! Feels like a wonderful beginning to an ebook! If so, please let us know when it's ready.


That Girl Who Likes To Go, Go, Go said...

I L-O-V-E your blogs!! I hope you're a blogionaire!

Liz said...

Clever blog. You do a great job of using fables to make a point! http://ultimate-resumes.blogspot.com/



Naomi said...

Great post. I remember the tale of the man with two wives from schooldays. Interesting blog. I love the way you apply fables and stories to situations in the workplace.

HeatherRMiller said...

This blog is absolutely wonderful! I am currently taking a business communication class which has a lot to do with learning how to be a good employee and team worker and this blog is an excellent addition to the lessons taught in the class. I am so glad I found this!


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