just say noWith all due respect to Nancy Reagan, sometimes you shouldn’t “just say no.” In fact, the best purveyors of that pesky word can deliver it without ever saying it. They can even leave the recipient of the denial feeling, well, not denied. It’s a finely tuned skill, but I’ve seen some true masters at work. I’ve watched and listened, and here’s what I’ve learned.

Step 1: Listen. The person you have to turn down is obviously asking for something. Listen to what that is. All of it. Ask a few questions along the way. The asker will appreciate that you’ve given the proposal due consideration, and you might pick up on something that a quick judgment would have hidden from view.

Step 2: Give something. Chances are, even if you think the overall proposal is a cockamamie idea, there’s probably some part of it that might be worth doing–or at least doesn’t really matter either way. Look for that thing and lead with it. Say something like, “I think [x-aspect] is a good idea. Let’s make that happen.” Give something to get something.

Step 3: Ask the person’s opinion. Formulate the questions whose answers have led you to your decision to say no. Then ask them. “Do you think we need this?” “What will we have to give up [if funds are an issue] to do this?” “Do you think it’s a good idea to…” Many, many times the person doing the asking isn’t considering the issue from the same perspective. When you ask the questions rather than giving the answers, you give the person a chance to reach your conclusion on her own. She is then in a position not only to accept your decision, but also to support it.

Step 4: […]  Yep, this one is empty. If you’ve done the first three steps effectively, you’ve probably already ended the conversation, with both you and the asker are satisfied. And you’ve never actually said no.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, I was on the receiving end of that no today–and I feel good about it.

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