The Art of Saying “No:” 10 Tips for Positive Push-Back
Learning how to say “no” without burning bridges is an important skill they don’t teach in the classroom. When is it okay to say “no?” When is it not? At what point do you give in? Gaining discernment and wisdom on the subject takes practice and dedication.
The most successful leaders have mastered the art of saying “no” in a way that doesn’t seem like conflict to their team. And it’s not just by chance they are successful. More than likely, they’ve learned by failing forward time and time again. So, we wanted to share some quick tips we’ve learned along the way to help reduce the learning curve.
When Should You Say “No?”
Chances are, you’ve been in a situation where saying “no” was risky. Maybe your boss has asked you to do something that is counterproductive, outside your job description, or out of line with your company’s values. Or maybe your client has a really bad idea they want you to execute, but you have a hunch it will end in ruin. In both scenarios, the person making the request is also the one paying your bills. So how do you shed light without putting your own job at risk?
In short, say “no” when a “yes” would under-serve the team. Don’t say “no” out of fear or ego-based motives.
How to Say No: Conquering Fear & Ego to Achieve Resolution
A recent client came to us with a project they had already started: building a new system to manage the most important part of their business for thousands of customers. The system would, over the years, handle millions of records worldwide. At the time, the project was already over budget and months past its delivery due date.
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Somewhere along the course of the project, they had lost their way. Their priorities had shifted away from perfecting the core functionality of the application to focusing on developing a suite of secondary features. They hoped these features would lend their product a “wow” factor, making it popular with users. Meanwhile, the core features and functionality of the product were being neglected.
Despite a few conversations about the cost and consequence of shifting the primary focus away from developing a product’s core, the client still believed the best path forward was to prioritize this secondary suite of features. So we had two options:
- Deliver according to the client’s request
The easy option here was to give the client what they wanted. After all, “the client is always right,” right? This option would, however, require us to commit to leading a product team for an application that we did not believe would succeed. And in the long-run, if our assessment was correct, we would ultimately have to face a disgruntled client who might believe the product failure was a result of our workmanship.
- Take ownership of the results
Or, we could take ownership of the product. Work with the client to align around product goals. Initiate dialogue around how to achieve those goals. Together, with the client, critically examine features prioritization according to the highest business value.
In the end, we went with Option 2 and enjoyed extremely favorable results. While saying “no” was difficult at first, our stance — and more importantly, attitude — made all the difference.
10 Tips for Positive Disagreement in the Workplace
Healthy conflict in the workplace is all about attitude. I’m inspired by Patrick Lencioni and The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, which encourages teams to establish a foundation of mutual trust for healthy conflict. This approach is in line with the old adage, “Let the best ideas win.” In other words, leave the ego at the door, lay all the ideas out on the table, and leave the room in agreement on the best solution.
Approach disagreement with a heart to serve and demonstrate you are on the same team as those with whom you disagree. Then let the issue work itself out.
If, in the end, your boss (or client) still responds, “Despite all of the compelling arguments you’ve presented, I still think we should move in this direction,” be prepared to do so as their partner and teammate. That is the mark of someone who has learned how to say “no” for the right reasons.
- Lead your stance with positive recommendations and alternatives.
Don’t lead with combative, direct, opposing language, right out of the gate. When you’ve said “no” to someone the right way, they won’t feel like you said “no.” They will feel like you are collaborating with them as a partner in their success.
- Once you have their buy-in on an alternate direction, come back with more direct, clear language about your mutual decision.For example: “To follow up, we agreed to take [XYZ new direction]; while there are many merits to [XYZ bad idea], we will instead, focus our time and effort on [XYZ good idea].”
- Build bridges by identifying common goals.
Take the time to really understand where your team is coming from. Listen well. Ask lots of questions to understand their reasons and motivations.Somewhere in their rationale you’ll probably encounter a goal you both agree on. Make that goal the starting point for working toward a compromise. You’ll probably end up with an even better direction than you would have come up with on your own.
- Align around the “how.”
Agreeing on the same method to achieve a goal is a gradual process which requires a lot of patience and communication. Your team probably won’t budge on their position overnight. Be prepared to demonstrate you’re on their side, both in what you say and what you do. Then, gently make your case with an attitude of service.
- Be prepared to support the other party, even if they never budge in the end.
Remember, you’re a team! You can move forward with peace and confidence, knowing that you’ve fulfilled your obligation to sound the alarm.
- Lead your stance with positive recommendations and alternatives.
Supplement your approach with disarming language that proves you’re not an enemy, but a friendly (and capable) teammate. I use phrases like:
- “Well gosh, it sounds like you’re saying…”
- “I could be wrong…”
- “I’m probably completely off the mark here…”
- “Would you mind if I share my perspective?”
- “Feel free to step on my toes here…”
When Conflict Makes Us Better
In the end, saying “no” is not so much about a singularly meteoric encounter as it is about a gradual process of collaboration. Whether you’re working with your colleagues, a client, your employer, or even friends and family, these guiding principles can keep you from turning disagreement into division. Conflict doesn’t have to burn bridges. With the right attitude, saying “no” can be the impetus for building bridges toward greater success.