“No” May Be the Most Liberating Word in the English Language


Whether it’s another activity your child wants to get involved with, a dinner out with your spouse’s friend who you really don’t like or a client that wants you to do something unethical, sometimes the right answer is “No.”

We value our relationships, and in the back of our minds the thought of reciprocity may be bouncing around (“Maybe I’ll have to ask this person for something in the future…”) but we can’t please everyone all the time.

What’s the best way to turn someone down?

Different approaches can work, depending on the circumstances, according to an article on Lifehacker.

  • How do you feel about the situation? A little planning will help you understand how you feel if a situation comes up so you can give an honest answer. The guilt of saying “no” can result from not feeling confident in your response or inventing a false excuse. Once you’ve decided how you would feel if a particular type of request is made going with your gut will be more comfortable. It won’t take much thought when the request comes up, and you can confidently respond in the negative. If the request is serious enough and you’re honestly torn, ask for time to make a decision. If you get pressure to respond, you may want to say no.
  • You may not want to appear to be a jerk, even to a perfect stranger, and come up with an excuse as to why you can’t do something. Just respond politely, “Sorry, I can’t,” and move on. Blabbering on about your personal life, your prior commitments or your limited finances is just a waste of time, and instead of appearing like a jerk you’ll seem like you are just making stuff up to justify saying no.
  • That may not be enough for some people. They may keep on pushing because they’re desperate or they think they can wear you down. This isn’t appropriate, and you should keep your resolve. You can show some empathy to their situation, then say no and move on.

When the person making the request is your boss or client, things get more complicated.

  • If your boss asks you to take on an additional assignment or take on another case, but you are maxed out, put the ball back in his or her court. Explain what work you’re currently doing, what needs to be done, when and ask what your priorities should be. If you need to add to your workload, what should you not do to make room? Is there someone else who can take one of your files so you can take on this new task? If your boss isn’t reasonable or flexible and wants you to work all of your waking hours, maybe your problem isn’t how you should say no, it’s how to find another employer.
  • If a client just wants his or her way, the law and professional ethics be damned, you have a choice to make. Maybe the client plans on perjury, to withhold or destroy evidence or come up with bogus counterclaims. You can go along with it and risk your reputation and your career to keep the client and get paid, or you can try to convince the client to take a better approach. Explain why the request is a bad idea, how it’s counterproductive and could result in a much worse outcome. If he or she can’t be convinced to do things the right way, you can jump into the mud with your client or say, “No.”

Life requires balance and part of that is knowing when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” You need to balance your resources and avoid burning out without shutting out people you really can help or limit your future opportunities. The devil is in the details.

Steven Mehta
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