Learning to Say No

In Essays, Minimalism, Philosophy, Self Improvement

Not long ago, I wrote an essay about why meeting are mostly a waste of time, and how we implcihould say “no” to most requests for meetings. This essay is simply an extension of that philosophy with a larger scope.

The problem is this: many of us feel compelled to say yes, when we really should be saying no. This is due to a number of social and psychological factors that are so ingrained into the way we live that often we don’t even realise that it is perfectly acceptable, and reasonable, to say no.

In many cases in life, you don’t need a PHD to realise that you should say no, and most of us manage to do it.

For instance, you would say no to the following scenarios:

  • An offer of drugs from a stranger.
  • A request to borrow a large sum of money from a casual acquaintance.
  • Having sex with someone you don’t want to sleep with.

Clearly, there are times when we feel it is absolutely reasonable to say no, just as there are other times when you absolutely cannot say no:

  • Your brother is sick and asks you to take him to the hospital.
  • Your father’s sixtieth birthday party.
  • That promotion you been gunning for the last three years.

The difficulty is saying no to the things inbetween. The grey area of life.

I’m going to argue that saying to no to many of grey issues in life is highly beneficial, even if at first it seems highly contradictory.

The Problem With Saying Yes

On the surface, yes seems like a great idea. It’s a simple three letter word that open doors, creates new opportunities, makes others happy, creates new relationships, and promotes collaboration.

And it’s true. Saying yes can lead to all of those things listed above, and more.

The problem is one of consistency.

You cannot know ahead of time whether saying yes will lead to all these wonderful things, or whether it is going to lead to overwork, breaking your work, unrealistic deadlines, or generally to things you will later regret.

Opportunity Cost

“Ahh!” I hear the Yes crowd shouting, “But what about the lost opportunities?”

I agree. If say no instead of yes, you will miss out on opportunities, but that’s life.

As the saying goes, you cannot have the cake and eat it.

But let’s remember, saying yes also means saying no. We all have limited resources: time, money, willpower, concentration, etc.

If you say yes now, you may well have to say no to an even better opportunity later.

This is called “Opportunity Cost“, and it is often discussed when dealing with investment. Sure, you can put your money into a certain investment and it should return you a certain percentage within a few years, but you also have to think of the lost income from other investments you could have invested in during that time.

Saying yes can also lead you astray in terms of doing the things that you value and love. In fact, I would go as far to say that the more passionate you are about your life’s work, the more often you should find yourself saying no, because many of the people you will deal with will not have that level of passion and are simply not worth working with.

When I was 17, I decided to give up studying the cello. This was after ten years of studies. Obviously that upset my mum, as she is also a cellist (but I guess it wasn’t as bad as when I quit college and decided not to go to university), but it was the right choice for me. Sometimes you have to say no, and it can be difficult for both yourself and the people around you.  This leads me nicely onto my next point…

Short Term Gain for Long Term Pain.

The real reason that many of us say yes (especially me!) when we shouldn’t is that humans generally do not like conflict. Saying no often doesn’t feel right, and it doesn’t feel nice.

The problem with avoiding short term conflict is that far more problems are caused in the long term.

It’s like breaking up with a girlfriend.

We all know it is stupid to stay in a toxic relationship because you don’t want to break up and have that short term conflict, and hurt the other person.

Yet, it is the right thing to do.

A great way to overcome these feelings is to ask yourself the following question:

What’s the Worse that Could Happen?

When you’re starting out learning to say no, you should keep the question “What’s the worse that can happen?” in your mind at all times. I’ve written before about keeping in mind that things could often be worse.

Generally speaking, it comes down to two variables:

1. You may piss off whoever it is that you’re dealing with.
2. You may call it wrong, and actually it really was worth saying yes.

Both of these points can be almost nullified.

Let’s tackle the first issue about getting on bad terms with whoever you turn down.

If they get angry that you declined their proposition, then it means that you called it right and that they are not worth dealing with.

I’ve actually developed a way to filter through the people I deal with, so I don’t even get to the point where I have to give a yes or no answer if I think they are not worth dealing with.

My business card doesn’t have a phone number, because I want people to email me.

This is so I can evaluate the way they write and layout the emails. Something as simple as this can instantly reveal a huge amount about a person or their organisation. Do they capitalise their name? Do they have a professional signature?

If they don’t pass my test, I don’t even reply to them.

Going back to the point about people getting angry, let’s imagine the hypothetical case of a boy asking out a girl. If she says no and he gets angry, shouts at her and then spreads rumors about her, then clearly he was never good boyfriend material in the first place, and she was absolutely correct in turning him down!

The girl saved herself a lot of grief in the long term by accepting conflict in the short term.

When you become an advanced practitioner in the art of saying no, then you will often be able to be so graceful in the way you turn people down that they may even thank you for it! If this is done skillfully, it often keeps the door open and allows you to change your mind after further evaluation in the future and turn that no into a yes. We will deal with that in depth slightly later on in this essay.

So what about if you make the wrong decision, and it turns out that actually you really should have said yes?

Everybody wishes that they had invested in Apple in the ’90s, yet few actually did, and there are hundreds of stories of investors and co-founders bailing out of startups early and then that small company become the market leader in the industry and the people who said no early on lost out on millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Of course, in hindsight every decisions looks easy, but when you are right there and then, living in that moment, then things are not so clear cut.

I think that part of the solution is to build good analytical and decision making skills so you can evaluate a situation as well as possible. The other part of the solution is a Stoic acceptance that you will never be able to make the right decisions 100% of the time.

If you can accept that, you will stop kicking yourself for any missed opportunities and just look for the next one.

I recently left a project that could, potentially, make millions. We had the software ready, we were the first in the market and had already pre-signed many large customers and two banks (it’s a financial services company). Unfortunately we had regulatory delays, and I wasn’t so sure about the commitment from my partners, and so I decided to leave and focus on my other businesses.

Now my other business won’t make millions overnight, but I do truly enjoy them.

The point being: I don’t know if the company I left will be successful and make millions (and I hope they do) but I won’t be losing any sleep either way, I’ll just concentrate on other things.

The reason I will be sleeping soundly is that I made a rational, informed decision by weighing up the various factors and then came to my conclusion. As long as I did my best, then I achieved my aim, and that’s the secret to never failing – setting your own internal goals.

The Benefits of Saying No.

Simplicty

he biggest, and most obvious, benefit to saying to is an immediate increase in the level of simplicity in your life.

I’ve written before about the benefits of keeping things simple and I think it is one of the cornerstones of living a good life.

If you say no because you are wary of over-committing yourself, then it means you value your time. This means that you will spend your time doing things that actually provide real value to you and the world.

It also means that you will deal with less bullshit, you will have shorter working hours, you can sleep more, and generally live a more balanced life.

In today’s knowledge based society, you don’t need to work a seventy hour week to do well, you just need to make the right decisions.

As we will see, this fact about putting a value on your decision making is why people will learn to accept when you say no. (hint: it’s because they trust and value your decision making capabilities!)

Keep your Values and Passions Intact.

Earlier in this essay I mentioned that the more passionate you are about your life’s work, the more likely you will find yourself saying no to people.

This isn’t a bad thing.

Your passions and your values should be completely incorruptible

So if a client asks you to do work for scarce financial renumeration, you should say no, and not because you are a money-grabbing greedy vampire, but because you cannot provide the level of quality and service you expect from yourself for that price.

Let’s imagine that a colleague asks you to modify some company documents so his mistake will go unnoticed, would you do it? If you value your integrity and trust higher than your friendship with your collegue, then you won’t.

Your colleague will learn that you are someone that they can completely trust when it comes to honest work, and your reputation will grow, and eventually precede you.

This leads us nicely to our next point…

Saying No Builds You an Awesome Reputation.

If you consistently say no when you think you are right, people will really take notice when you say yes. Your approval or collaboration in a project will held as a mark that the idea is a good one, and that this is something worth working at.

So in other words, saying no makes your yes more powerful.

Additionally, in your “saying-no career” you will have to stand up for yourself against numerous adversaries:

  • Your Boss
  • Colleagues
  • Clients
  • Investors
  • Family
  • Friends

This is going to build character, and, generally speaking, people love people with a strong character.

Think about it, nobody wants to work with a wishy-washy colleague or have a husband you can’t stand up for himself.

Of course, we have to be careful about how we say no. We must be graceful, otherwise we run the risk alienating people who would otherwise be perfectly reasonable.

Going back to our example about the boy asking the girl out for a date, if the girl gives a crushing response, not only telling the boy that she doesn’t want to go on a date, but that he will never find a girlfriend, and that he is the most disgusting thing she has ever seen, then perhaps the boy may have a case in getting angry, if he isn’t particularly wise.

The Art of Saying No Gracefully.

Learning to say no gracefully is probably one of the most important skills in life, and it’s often unnecessary to burn bridges (although sometimes not having the ability to turn back on a decision can help) because you may need to recross them in the future.

The aim of saying no gracefully is also to take as much of the sting away from rejecting the other person, which in turn also helps to fulfill the first aim of staying flexible in the future.

Make it About You

Generally I am not a fan of sugar-coating the truth, but often it is the least-worst choice.

I am strong believer in not telling people that they are wrong, but letting them discover it by themselves. This can be difficult to do, especially when we’re talking about friends or family, but I think that in the long term it is almost always the best choice.

Say a close friend comes to you with a wacky business idea and wants you to be her partner. What do you do?

Personally, I would stay clear from the “Your idea is absolutely ridiculous, and I’m not even going to consider it” approach.

A better approach is something along the lines of “Hmm, sounds really interesting, but I am completely full with work for the next few months, there is no way that I can take on a new project, especially one like this“.

So what have we done here? We’ve praised them “…sounds really interesting,”, but then we have said no not because we don’t want to work with them, or because their idea is crazy, but because we cannot do it.

We’ve said no, and we’ve said that it is our fault, and that they cannot control the decision, because it has to do with how busy we are, it has nothing to do with their idea.

Delaying the Decision.

Often the things that we feel compelled to say yes to are of little importance, and that’s why people convince us to commit to them.

“I only need your help for a couple of hours on this project” – sounds familiar?

The best way to deflect a good percentage of these requests is to simply delay in making a decision. Because many of these requests are trivial, they will natural resolve themselves without any assistance from you.

If a request does persist, then use the previous method to deflect.

A More Forceful Approach to Saying No

> Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.

~ John Wayne

Sometimes a stronger type of no is needed, a type of no where there are no wishy-washy excuses or apologies.

This type of no is to be used when someone asks you to do something unreasonable.

It’s quite easy to do, but it does take some time to develop a strong enough character to pull it off well. I’m not particularly good at this.

You simply say no, and then list out your reasons. You don’t make it a debate, you do not apologise, or even say something along the lines of “it’s not personal but…“.

Once you’ve finished this type of no, that person will always think twice about asking something unreasonable from you again without prior thought, and they will also realise that they didn’t know you as well as they thought they did.

Saying No to Clients.

I’ve decided to dedicate a special section of this essay to saying no to clients, because there is a different dynamic to other relationships.

After all, a client is paying you (hopefully very, very well) and so what right do you have to say no?

The client is always right, right?

No. Far from it in fact.

I think part of the problem in thinking that one must always say yes to the client is in not understanding the relationship between you, or your company, as a supplier of services/goods, and the customer.

The two most common misconceptions are this:

The first misconception is thinking that making the client happy and always saying yes to their requests is the same thing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Clients are not stupid, but they are not experts in your field, and so they do not always know what they want. That’s why mindlessly saying yes to all their proposal is actually bad for your business, and theirs.

The second misconception is about the nature of the work you are doing. Unless you are doing menial work (i.e. work that requires little to no skill), then the client is, at least in part, paying you for your decision making capabilities and knowledge. In fact, one could go as far to say that they are outsourcing their thinking on this particular problem to you.

Once we understand the two above points, we can see that the relationship is more about working together towards a common goal.

In an ideal world, you and your client should have your goals completely aligned, so that when you say no, it is always because it is beneficial to the client. Of course, this is not always the case.

Five times you should always say no to your client.

  • When they ask you to do something immoral, illegal, and/or unethical.

This doesn’t need explaining. It’s simply not worth risking legal action or worse for money. The downsides are far bigger than any upside.

  • When something is not in the contract.

Careful here, while you shouldn’t be doing extra work for free, overdelivering can reap future rewards so play it by ear for the small things. If it’s a major contractual change, then amend the contract, and the price. At Whisper & Company, which is a digital agency, we have a way of dealing with this. For large contracts,we include up to 10hours changes per month for things that are not in the contract. If a change takes more than 10 hours, we charge for it separately. This gives the best of both worlds, the client doesn’t feel handcuffed by the contract, and we are insured against large changes to the original plan.

  • Not Being Paid Enough.

This is linked to the above point. As mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t actually make this about the money, but about the quality. In software development, there is the “development triangle” of fast, cheap, good. The joke is that you can pick any two. Well, you should never allow the client to leave good out.

  • If a client asks for something that you truly believe is not beneficial for them.

If a client asks you to do something that is not beneficial for them, you should say no, and you should stick to that decision unless the client can either convince you otherwise, or has made an informed decision because there are other business factors that are not available to you.

  • If you’re not capable.

I know I love to work with people who are honest. If you can’t deliver, tell the client and then work with them to find a solution. This can mean finding someone else to do the job, or to find a completely different solution that still works for them