The Art of Saying No

The Art of Saying No is the final article of a 3 part series on Effective Time Management.  This session focuses on what could be claimed to be the major cause of our problems with managing time – our inability to say No.

The previous two videos looked at what we do with our time, if we should be doing certain tasks and then how we organise and optimise our time.  However, none of this will make a lot of difference if we keep taking on too much work.  Some people are very good at saying no, others maybe not so good.  But the issue is not just about saying No, it is also about HOW to say no effectively.


Understanding the Challenge

I have spoken a number of times about the challenges and stresses of being overworked.  But the reality is, in my experience at least, the main issue that we face with being overworked is that we do not push back enough when we are asked to do more work, to use the art of saying no.

In our industry we are focused on building solutions to problems and so we have a mindset to help get something done.  However we simply cannot solve every problem.  We are so used to saying Yes that we struggle to say No.  There are many reasons for this – we don’t want to offend the person, we don’t want to be seen as creating problems, we want to help, the person will cause a fuss if I say no, etc..

The funny thing is that if this were a technology problem we would immediately diagnose the issue and tell the person that they need to stop accepting more work.  But it isn’t a technology problem – it is a mindset problem.  In a busy team with a lot of work, time constraints on opportunities and potentially limited resources these issues will ALWAY come up.  There will always be too much work and short deadlines.

The effect on YOU can be serious.  Accepting more and more work will impact you heavily, increase stress and cause you to miss deadlines across many of the opportunities that you are working.  The quality of your work will suffer as will your reputation.

In some of the worst case scenarios you could end up in hospital – and I have seen that happen !


The Power of Saying No

Being able to say No actually becomes an enabler, a super-power.  It frees you from the constant threat of being over-run with work and puts you back in control of your deliverables, the quality of your work and, of course, your reputation.

Even more importantly it allows you to maintain the work-life ratio at the level that you want it to be and helps to drive your personal well-being.  Those late night worries about work start to ebb away because you are getting control of your work time back.

The most successful people in business have recognised that you need to focus your time and energy on the things that will move you forward the most.  Great leaders regularly have to say no to good ideas, not because they will not work, but because they don’t fit with the business priorities.

But in some respects the real power of learning to say no is more about learning HOW to say no.  There are some people that will just give a clear and blunt NO, but that can have a significant negative impact on the person making the request and therefore on the wider team.  That is where the Fine Art of Saying No comes in.

Being able to say no also helps you to deal with the difficult situations in your personal life as well – but I will leave that to you.


Expectations and Priorities

The start of the journey of learning the art of saying  No is recognising the mindset challenge of saying No.  Many people just don’t like saying no and yet they instinctively know that they are harming themselves by accepting the request.  The challenge is that they don’t have a framework to help them to say no.

This framework starts with understanding our boundaries – understanding the expectations of the role and of each other in the team.  What should we be achieving and doing as part of our roles and how should we interact with each other? That is something that you should agree with your manager and should be communicated across the team.  Setting the correct expectations is crucial, and it might take a few iterations to get them right.

Remember though that working in a sales environment means that our workloads can be variable and sometimes we just need to get the work done.  But there should be ebbs and flows and not just a constant level of overwork.  The expectations now define the operating model for the team, the basis of the framework which you can use to review any new requests coming in.  They are the foundation for the next steps.

The next layer of the framework is getting clarity on what are the business priorities.  As I mentioned earlier, there will always be more work that we can all do and so we need to be clear of what opportunities, projects and tasks are priorities for each of us.  These will obviously change over time, but there should be clarity amongst the team of what the priority list is.

We now have our expectations and priorities, which means that we have the boundaries that we need to operate within.  This provides the framework that we need to be able to say No.

However, there is one final point here that you should consider – what if the expectations and priorities are still beyond where you are comfortable.  Well that is a much broader topic about careers and roles, and I would suggest that you need to review if the role or the company is the right place for you to be.

Having defined the expectations and the priorities we need to ensure that they are communicated clearly within the team and also with those teams, departments and groups that interact with the team.  For example, the Marketing team should be clear that we are targeting a specific market sector for additive business or a particular customer segment for expansion deals so that they align their work with ours.  It means that they do not request help on campaigns that we are not driving.


Assertiveness and Diplomacy

There are people that we can call assertive and then there are those that take it to the next level.  The folks that we would perhaps use impolite names to describe them.  The challenge is that we want to be assertive but not thought of as one of THOSE people.

Most people want to be assertive but also diplomatic so that we don’t cause disruption in the team.  We need to introduce strategies for communicating a “no” in a professional and respectful manner, but also in a way that doesn’t get overturned.  I am sure that many of us have experienced a pushy account executive that says something like “You need to drop what you are doing and just get THIS done right away”.  They might scream and shout to get their way.

This is where the framework for the Fine Art of Saying No kicks in.  You need to mentally review where the request fits with the expectations and priorities.  If it fits then you need to have a calm conversation about the real priority of the request.  That should be a standard process for an SE, but I will come back to that shortly.

If it does NOT fit then it is time to say no, but here’s the thing – it isn’t YOU that is saying no – it is the expectations and priorities that have been agreed with the manager and the team.  It solves the mindset issue that we talked about earlier.

You can use phrases like “How am I supposed to do that when I have been tasked by my manager to do X” or “I’m sorry but I can’t do that because I have to get Y delivered by Friday”.

The AE will push back, but stay firm.  They already know that they have lost the discussion because you are using reason.  The important point is that you use non-confrontational phrases that are based on what has already been agreed.

But what if you are overworked and it fits in the priorities.  That’s when you apply the Fine Art of Saying No to your Manager.  You can use the phrase “How am I supposed to do that when you asked me to do X” or “Which of these two conflicting items would you prefer me to work on”.  You turn the problem around and hand it straight back to your manager to resolve.

Each of these approaches has an additional benefit in that it builds trust and stability within the team.  Everyone knows that you will deliver on your opportunity and project work with a level of quality that people expect from you.  That’s a great additional benefit.

By the way, you can also use this approach with unreasonable demands from customers, but be careful – there can be consequences if you get it wrong.  My advice would be to perfect the process internally first before you use it anywhere else.


Practice and Application

Like any new skill, you need to practice saying no, but you will find that you can build your confidence to do so very quickly.  You will also start to notice that the number of overbearing requests will begin to diminish as well, as the AEs learn that you will not be a pushover, where they can get you to do whatever they need.

You can use this process to handle meeting requests that conflict with existing bookings, requests that are outside the scope of your role or customer list, and especially requests that directly impact your personal life.  I know of people that have been forced to take a work meeting while they are on vacation.

Just keep thinking about the expectations and priorities and make your call based on them.


Blog Links:


Video Links:

Time Management Part 1 :

Time Management Part 2 :

The Art of Saying No :

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