How to say no positively

by | Oct 31, 2019

Flower growing in rocks
Saying no can be one of the most stressful things about leadership. In fact, ex British Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, ‘The art of leadership is not saying yes, it’s saying no’.

It can be really hard to say no, even when you know you should. We might find ourselves signed up for opportunities we don’t want to take, surrendered to inappropriate demands, committed to courses of action we don’t believe in, or indebted beyond our means because we couldn’t say no.

Maybe we were scared of jeopardising a relationship, or feeling self-conscious about whether people might not like us anymore if we said no. Perhaps, we felt sorry for the person that was asking, and we didn’t want to let them down, or maybe we were just too busy taking care of everyone else needs at the expense of the greater good.

Say no to say yes

Sometimes it can help to remember that by saying ‘no’ you are actually saying ‘yes’. For example, by saying ‘no’ to a bad investment, you are saying ‘yes’ to a healthy financial outlook. Or by saying ‘no’ to a candidate you didn’t feel was quite the right fit for your business, you are saying ‘yes’ to prioritizing a good working culture.

Thinking about what your ‘no’ is allowing you to say ‘yes’ to is the first step. The second step of saying no more positively is thinking about a positive alternative to the proposal you are denying.

Take the first example of the bad investment. Maybe another member of the senior leadership team wanted you to agree to some type of investment that you weren’t comfortable with. You need to think about how you can say no, but make them feel like you’ve said yes.

Think of the positive

To do this you need to think of a positive alternative, so for the bad investment it could be ‘no I don’t want to buy x, however I think we could consider buying Y’. Or for the example of the candidate that you didn’t want to employ, maybe the positive alternative could be employing them in a different position, or going back to the recruiter and redefining what you are looking for.

The ‘art of leadership’ which Tony Blair was talking about, lies in learning how to balance and marry the two, the yes and the no, in order to stand up for what you need, but still maintain key relationships.

Say no for the right reasons

Other than in a semantic sense, saying no doesn’t have to be negative. It can be positive for your sense of self, for protecting your interests, for furthering your aims, and for setting boundaries with others. It is much more positive for your relationships to give a true, clear answer which the other person can trust is representative of what you really want.

So don’t be afraid of saying no, just examine that you are doing so for the right reasons, and then think of your positive alternative.

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