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The Skillful Art of Saying NO

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The Skillful Art of Saying NO

Late Friday afternoon at the counter of Sozo Sushi bar, my favorite sushi joint in Ft. Lauderdale. I drift into a conversation with Andy, the fellow sitting to my right. Andy, it turns out, is the just-retired CEO of a well-known Fortune 500 recruitment firm.

Do you miss your work? I ask Andy

I hated the politics of my job, Andy answers circuitously. I persist.

So what kind of guidance would you give another executive on how to navigate politics?

I’m the wrong person to ask, Andy says sheepishly. I was horrible at it. A pause, and then he volunteers:

Learn to say NO and make them feel like they won!

Andy says it with a twinge of sarcasm in his voice, and yet he and I both know that what he says makes sense. One of my favorite definitions of “strategy” suggests that successful strategy is about what we say NO to. Success, I increasingly believe, is my ability to say NO to things that don’t fully make sense.

So how do we turn a perhaps undesired perspective into a WIN? Not by spinning it or spouting a bunch of BS like an unskilled politician or one of their surrogates. No, we do it by skillfully changing the conversation so the other person’s perspective is invited to shift. When the NO suddenly seems like the only possible outcome.

Easy? Nope. But when it works, the other person will be so grateful to you for your NO. Here are just a few ways of presenting a NO that will make the person feel like s/he just got a YES:

1. Create a trade-offs narrative

By not doing this deal, we will have plenty more cash and energy on hand for other deals that will likely be a lot more compelling and rewarding for us. We will be so much more boldly rewarded for our patience and faith.

2. Articulate a powerful context for your NO

Saying NO right now will save us countless headaches and ensure we don’t take ill-considered risks. It will force us to focus more fully on what we actually do best and improve this core rather than getting distracted by shiny objects.

3. State the benefits of making an exception

By not making this policy uniform and allowing one business unit to follow different guidelines, we can actually better measure the impact of this new initiative. We will have a comparison study that will yield powerful data. We can always turn this temporary NO into a YES later and will then be armed with better information.

4. Shift their time perspective

  • If the other person is fixated on a short-term gain, offer a long-term perspective that makes a NO right now sound like the most prudent choice.
  • If the other person’s is fixated on making a long-term play, offer clear evidence why your particular NO right now will open the door to better paths toward long-term success.
  • Notice their time perspective. Switch it up.

Popular wisdom suggests that we not actually utter the word NO when we say and mean NO. Reconsider this dictum. The depth of our relationship with the other person and the urgency of the circumstances will define how explicit and direct our NO will be. A clearly stated NO, coupled with our ability to shift another person’s perspective, is the ultimate relationship WIN. Because we have played above board, and we have done so with skill, there really is no hidden politics at play. Chances are, we have gained more respect in the other person’s eyes. We have grown our personal influence and earned the right for future NOs.

Try it. You will be amazed.

Related: The Rewards of Telling the Truth

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