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The Tao Of "No": 3 Guidelines For Politely Declining

Like many people I know who consider themselves good-natured—or at least are doing their best—I have a tough time saying no.

My instinct is always to take on more, to acquiesce, to give the answer people want to hear. Those who know me are perhaps raising an eyebrow of skepticism right now—okay, it’s true that I have no problem being assertive when there’s something that I want. It’s more an issue of declining or pushing back when it’s something others want: My natural inclination is to please at all costs. I even took a personality test at the behest of my first boss in advertising, and right under the Strategic heading, I displayed a quality called Woo, which means, if I remember correctly, a desperate need for people to like me (it may not have been that harsh, but that’s how I interpreted it).

I would never advocate that anyone try to become less generous or more stubborn. Openness, generosity, and a willingness to change one’s mind are some of the most important qualities a person can have. But there are also times, in business and in life, when you just have to say no.

1. Say no to clients if: They’re asking for something that’s truly detrimental to their business. This is a tough one, because we all become attached to the work that we do, and it’s very hard to honestly evaluate whether or not we’re digging in our heels in a way that’s self-serving (i.e. we love the work so we insist they love it too, period). In many ways, clients know their business better than an outside partner ever could, and it’s crucial to respect that. We also have an ability to push back in a way that internal staff never would, which we must use wisely and sparingly. My partners and I rely on each other for this valuable perspective—whoever is least close to the process will weigh in on whether or not a battle is worth fighting. And it’s only worth fighting if it’s truly going to help your client succeed (or prevent them from making a big mistake). The good news is, if you limit the number of times over the course of a relationship that you flat out refuse to do something, they’re much more likely to take it seriously.

Always say yes when: clients can justify their request with a strategic business decision that’s a whole lot bigger than your involvement.

2. Say no to favors when: Someone tries to make you an unofficial advisor to their business or project, without requesting that you take on an ongoing role. I am always happy to meet with people who are starting businesses or looking to rebrand—I would be nowhere today without generous souls who freely gave me their perspective. But this should really only happen once or twice. If someone is requesting ongoing meetings or a series of favors, then it’s appropriate for them to acknowledge your involvement in some sort of official capacity. Whether it’s creating an advisory board, compensating you for your time, or even just having a conversation where they outline their needs and ask you to define how much you are willing to be involved—any of these routes are preferable to casual but continuous contact. Your time and advice are extremely valuable and should be treated as such by those benefiting from your expertise.

Always say yes when: someone is just starting out in their career and needs advice. Every one of us relied on mentors to get started, and success means it’s time to pay it back.

3. Say no to plans when: You haven’t had a night to yourself in far too long, and you need some time alone. This includes business-related plans, as well as catching up with friends, even those you haven’t seen in ages. If you need a night off for your health and well-being, say no. Somehow it’s not socially acceptable to say that you can’t do something because you’re not busy, but it should be. So for our collective, overscheduled sanity, let’s make it so.

Always say yes when: you are just being lazy, and you know deep down you’ll have a great time or a meaningful experience if you get off the couch and go.

"No" is not a word that we typically associate with anything positive. But "no" is an inherent part of prioritization and defining what you stand for. When we think of it that way, saying no can actually open up the space for greater potential and possibility.

[Image: Flickr user Adam Naddsy]