A Better way to say “No”
At work, many times we have to say no to internal or even external customer requests because they aren’t priorities or because we aren’t the people who can help them.
The problem is people learn to say “No” too well.
This can easily become a negative experience for our internal customers and even more easily turn into a “pissing contest between the two parties.”
So how can we say “No” without turning off our internal customers?
Even better how can we say “No” and actually make people feel good about it (us)?
The Airport: An Example
Think about being at the airport, in a pretty perky mood because you are heading south with a group of buddies for a week of golf.
When you approach the reservation agent to check in, you offer a cheery “Hello” to the agent, who gives you a blank, empty stare.
At first you assume that she might be deep in thought on some other topic, so you say a bit louder, “Good afternoon.”
She cocks her head to the side, slowly closes and opens her eyes, and says, “I heard you. What do you want?”
Apparently her day wasn’t going as well as yours.
You then tell her your destination, hand her your ID, and then ask, “Is my flight on time?”
To which she answers curtly “No.”
The Information she Gave was very Accurate
So why did you feel less than grateful for her offering you such accurate information?
It wasn’t the “No” that hurt, it was the story you told yourself about the no.
When you tell people no, there are two problems the word “No” can create.
The first is disappointment.
The second is disrespect.
Disappointment and Disrespect: Not Good
The first says, “The world isn’t going to work the way today you hoped it would, Bucky.”
The second says, “And I don’t really care.”
While you may occasionally need to create the first problem, you need never create the second.
In fact, the first one feels less vexing if delivered by someone who assiduously avoids the second.
Let me say it again.
You might not be able to change the first (disappointment) directly but you can change the second which will change the first (indirectly).
Things to Keep in Mind when Delivering a “No”
Find a way to say (use the word) yes.
Even if you can’t do everything the customer wants, show you care by finding a way to mitigate the disappointment.
For example, suppose you decide to make a reservation at one of a very busy but popular string restaurants.
There’s a 90 percent chance the time and date you want won’t be available.
What if the reservation agent could come up with a yes to add to their “No”?
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Smith (respect and affiliation) that time doesn’t work at the downtown location, but I can get you in at midtown location.
Or, perhaps I could move your time back two hours and then I can find you a table at our downtown location.
When delivering bad news, show you care by proposing alternatives:
- Different times
- Smaller requirements
- Other resources the customer can use, etc.
Make sure you have the suitable response prescripted and encrypted into your brain or otherwise your reptilian selfish brain will sabotage you and a rather crude “No” loaded with disappointment and disrespect will come flying out of your mouth.
The reason for that is that their request generally displaces and dislocates (inconveniences) us as much as our response (our “No”) displaces and dislocates them.
Make Sure You Help, Don’t Scold
In business so often part of our problem is that people make requests of us that don’t fit our scope or role.
Of course, it would be highly inefficient and a misuse of our scarce resources to say yes when our duties are in another direction.
In this case, you can still show you care by not just saying, “We don’t do that,” but actually taking the customer’s hand to guide them to the place that does.
For example, you are shopping in a large department store looking around confusedly for the menswear department.
A server notices your lost look.
Rather than simply saying, “It’s over there,” she says, “Follow me.”
She walks you to the elevator, calls for an elevator car, then pushes the appropriate button, enters the elevator with you, leads you off the elevator, takes you to the menswear section and wishes you a good luck.
What does that treatment make you feel like?
Manage the Story
An unexplained “No” feels much different than a “No” with a reason.
For example, when the reservation agent says no, you instinctively search her face to see whether she cares.
We (our reptilian brain) are hard wired to assess the motives of people we interact with.
When we enter a room, a significant amount of cognitive processing power is spent scanning the room for social, emotional, or physical threats.
When someone tells us no, our brains automatically kick into assessment mode to determine whether this person is celebrating our disappointment (meaning they are a potential threat) or is sympathetic with it.
To communicate the latter and avoid the former, offer a small explanation.
There is a seven-second difference between “The movie is sold out” and “I’m sorry, we just sold the last ticket.
A large group of senior citizens came in a bus to this showing.” But the two feel much different.
That is how to say “No” so that it kind of feel like a “Yes” but still gets you the effect of a solid “No.”
This article is taken from my book on political savvy, “How to exert Influence when you Have no Authority” and this – political intelligence – at the personal level is a good thing to know, but there is an even better answer for any continuous and interdependent work flow among people or departments that requires cooperation.
That answer of course is to have a systemic process, an organizational structure that is designed before the fact that encourages, rewards and measures people in different departments to function as an entire or single unit.
For more on how to address that rather thorny issue, silos, see my book “The Phantom of the Operation.”
For more on this topic, we recommend the following
How to Exercise Influence When