Just say "No"

May 25, 2007

I teach my clients how to to say “no”. Many are simply overwhelmed by the task of managing and leading to garner the resources to tell others that they are simply not available. So many managers I know feel guilty about saying “no”. I think it’s one of the most liberating words in the English language and used effectively it’s one of the most empowering.
We’re so conditioned in business to saying “yes” – to being available 24/7 to meet the client’s needs that saying “no” evokes anxiety and fear. But what does constantly saying “yes” set up?

  • Exhausted and worn out executives
  • Excessive demands from clients
  • A never-good-enough culture
  • Lousy boundaries

Saying “no” on the other hand fosters

  • Empowered and sane executives
  • Good boundaries
  • Realistic expectations and deliverables

So saying “no” in this instance is really saying “yes” to something that’s defined by healthy boundaries
Think for a moment about small children. At the age of 2 they discover the “no” word and apart from the frustration it causes, it’s a pivotal moment in a child’s life when they realise they are empowered to get what they want. It creates a negotiating position and forces parents to be more creative about their demands. “Pick your battles” is the advice from those who have been there before. And it’s wise advice. If you can’t use the word “no” then every demand and expectation assumes the same importance as every other. Using the “no” word judiciously invites others to choose what’s important and approach accordingly.
Good boundaries make good neighbours and I encourage my coaching clients to examine what they are setting up for themselves by constantly “being available”. Sometimes we have to take responsibility for the demands we place on ourselves before we look to those being awarded by others.

3 People reacted on this

  1. Annette, I think there is a difference between Saying NO! and limit setting. I have no problem setting limits, but I seldom say “No” outright to a client or colleague. I see saying No as an artform.
    When I hesitate to say no, I examine why. Sometimes its because I realize the tricky dilemma I will be placed in by accepting an assignment and the client does not . (for examples, my new role may pull me to cross boundaries within a client system) So, I know I have to say no, but I tend to have a conversation and explore the nature of the request, talk it all through, and have the client come to understand why working with me in a particular assignment is not a good idea. The very conversation of saying no leads to new insights and understanding.
    From my experience, when i swirm inside in anticipation of saying NO, its usually because a direct NO, is not the right response.

  2. I think both are true Sharon. If I am working with a client who is being abused or bullied in a system there is a definite need to say “no”. You don’t negotiate with abusers..and the analytic “no” IS a boundary setting exercise – the Oedipus complex is predicated on the paternal “no” so I see a very relevant place for it in organisational life. If you can’t say “no” then you can’t say “yes” – they are both sides of the same issue in my view and both have a relevant and important place in work settings.
    That doesn’t mean you don’t inquire into what is going on that generated this particular situation.
    If I am working with a therapy client their physical safety comes first and I have had occasion to suggest to a client that they inform the police about stalking behaviour (which is about as direct a “no” as you can get) before working on what else was going on. I don’t see a difference in a work setting..
    Also if you don’t say “no” you create the illusion of the “perfect” executive and to paraphrase Winnicot – that simply isn’t possible – good enough has to do – good enough requires a “no” also.

  3. I agree with you 100%; if there is clearly abuse or threat going on, where someone does not feel safe, then a firm NO is definitely required. and if you can’t say No to this type of behavior, then you really need to examine why. self definition and self protection are critical. To not set limits with people who are craving it, can be abusive in its own way.

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