How to say no

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.

Fuzzy math

Fuzzy-mathI’m a firm believer in say-what-you’ll-do, do-what-you-say. If I make a promise, I try hard to keep it. If I don’t think I can do something, I don’t commit (most of the time–I’m human, after all). I figured this was pretty standard procedure for everyone, but an event that occurred several years ago set me straight.

Someone close to me and I were discussing our busy schedules, and after hearing about all the projects he had on his plate, I was convinced that he had way overcommitted. I encouraged him to reevaluate and extricate himself from a couple of things, hoping to avoid frustration down the road. He was adamant that he would stick to his guns, even though he acknowledged he couldn’t get it all done. Here’s what he told me:

If I can only complete 80% of what I’ve promised, then I’ll promise 120% of what I think I can do. That way, I’ll get 100% done.

Stunned silence followed.

Any way you figure that, it just doesn’t work. What about the people who were promised something who didn’t receive it? Just because they fall outside the so-called 100% threshold, that doesn’t mean they’ll be any less disappointed. I’m sorry, [friend, boss, child, colleague, teacher], I didn’t do what I said I would, but look at all this other stuff I got done. Aren’t you proud of me? Yeah, right.

Besides that, the math doesn’t work: 80% of 120% is 96%–not 100%. No matter what, someone is going to end up frustrated and disappointed. The damage to your credibility isn’t worth it; sometimes you just have to say no. Otherwise, all you’ve got is fuzzy math.

I quit

Mmmm, donuts. When I was 13, my friend and I would ride our bikes around the corner to the back door of a little house-turned-bakery that dispensed these delectables warm and slathered with chocolate. In high school, all giggles and schemes, I started a Friday rotation in my German class so that nary a week went by without these cakey treats. College in New England meant there was always a Dunkin’ D in any given sight line, and the corporate world wouldn’t survive without a sleek white bakery box to prop up the coffee pot.

I loved the jelly filled sort most, airy cake plumped full of raspberry goo and so liberally dusted with powdered sugar that it left a trail down my shirt. Later I discovered the sour cream cake version, so heavy with secret fatty goodness that you could see its footprint on any surface it touched. Mmmm, donuts.

But I don’t eat them any more.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that after my eyes rolled back into their proper positions, the rest of my body did not share the euphoria of my taste buds. Five minutes after my last bite, these little goodies would make me feel miserable. I’m pretty sure that their delicious goodness frolicked on my taste buds solely to create a diversion, allowing their more nefarious companions to sneak past my tongue and turn my insides to sludge.

It took me thirty years to discover the ruse, but once I caught on, I quit cold turkey–and I have never regretted it. It wasn’t even hard to do. I just planted my flag in the sand and declared, “I don’t eat donuts.” It was like flipping a switch in my head; I can walk by the most beautiful display of eclairs with nary a flutter of temptation.

Lest you think that my point rests solely in the hollow space of a Krispy Kreme, I challenge you  (and myself) to wipe the glaze from your glasses and look for your donut. What tastes good but feels bad? I’ll bet we can all make a long list of items that have nothing to do with food. The trick is learning how to say no.

(Check out this terrific post from if you need some inspiration.)