Aug 6

Saying “no” with grace

I shipped my blog to Brian to edit yesterday, as I do every time I’m up to bat, and this morning received the gentlest “no” I have heard in a long time.

Brian wrote: “I think this was well written and very funny. However, I am struggling a bit because ….” He continued with: “I just wonder if we should position it more along the lines of…” and then questioned, “I think I’m trying to figure out what is the value-add here for readers beyond…” and the suggestion of “maybe paraphrased synopses for the quotes here” before finally wrapping up with “What do you think? I just worry a tad with this.”

He could just as easily have written: This is off the mark. Have you lost your mind? You better start over.

But Brian didn’t because he has mastered the fine art of saying “no.”

There’s seldom a day that goes by where one of our team doesn’t have to say “no” to a client. Sometimes it’s as simple as re-directing enthusiasm gone astray while others it’s a more complicated attempt to stop a potential train wreck.

It’s often not an easy conversation. We don’t relish the task of saying no – after all, our job is to open doors, smooth paths and remove obstacles so effective communication can shine.

But it is an important skill to have – so important, in fact, it’s part of our interview questions for prospective job candidates. We give a hypothetical and ask the candidate how s/he would respond a client who is asking for something we all know will not work – and then listen to see what we hear. Ideally, it goes something like this:

  • Start with the positives: There’s almost always something substantive you can say about an idea. Find the nuggets of goodness and lead with those, as Brian did in the example above. We all like praise – if you begin there, your audience will be a lot more likely to keep listening.
  • Transition to the issue: Identify the issue at hand with firm but gentle strokes. Don’t attack the idea itself. “I” statements come in handy here, as they did with Brian. He effectively used the transitional “however” to move from praise to criticism, couching it with “I am struggling” rather than “your idea is off-base.”
  • Look at the impact: Move from the issue to its impact on stakeholders and draw a picture of what the potential impact might be. Brian reminded me of my audience, rightly questioning what the value-add might be for them – and his question made me step back and question. We’ve all had those ideas that are perfect gems, until someone comes along and holds up a mirror. Brian dd that very effectively for me this morning.
  • Offer an alternative: Rather than simply saying no, come back with a way to say yes. Suggest an alternative that keeps the initial nugget of the idea intact but provides a better, safer and more judicious way to meet the goal. Brian did that with the suggestion of paraphrasing quotes, which would have required a significant rewrite of my initial blog but still honored the original idea.
  • Reflect it back: Wrap up the conversation by putting the idea back in the originator’s lap. Using rhetorical questions, as Brian did with his “What do you think,” is a great way to accomplish this. He demonstrated he’s on my side and has my best interests at heart.
  • Be brave: Take a deep breath and be brave. It’s not easy to reject an idea. It’s really not easy to reject an idea from your boss. And it’s incredibly not easy to shut down a client. But sometimes a little short-term ouch can deliver a longer term ahhhhhhh, as it did in this instance.

Brian, a special thanks for starting your Monday saving me from myself. Very much appreciate your candor – and your gentle touch in delivering it.


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