No Yes, Yes, Yes

Summary: Saying no is never easy. This is a post about my attempt at that unease.

One of 2014’s biggest takeaways for me was “Saying NO is okay”. You see, I was the quintessential YES MAN. Yes, you can come along too; Yes, I can go get the laundry bag; Yes, I will always say yes; yes, yes!

Last week, I was at a workshop on Business Communication and one of the topics we discussed was how to say no, gracefully! Isn’t that an oxymoron now? Here’s what happened at the workshop: Each of us were put in numerous situations, stripped of any excuses we could conjure up and were simply told to say No to a request, gracefully. Requests ranged from a good friend repeatedly asking you for money to a terrible driver of a friend asking to drive your new BMW. As we began our responses to the request we could not help but come up with an excuse; even the most intelligent one being shot down. The instructor made it very clear – No Excuses! After every situation we were asked to vote for the best answer or rather the most graceful No. Something that was common amongst all of the best answers was the fact that they all seemed so true and they all had a structure. Even though these were hypothetical situations, the best of answers made the situation sound very real. The structure was simple: the answers started by understanding the person’s emotion first before expressing one’s own. Then came a FIRM NO; No ‘well, but, sometime else’ etc., Just NO. This may sound rude you would feel, but strangely, it sounded extremely normal. It is how the answers began provided a good cushion for the No that was coming.

I don’t exactly remember the best answers, but let me put my memory a test anyway. When requested for the new BMW by the friend (a terrible driver mind you) the answer went something like this:

“Buddy, I am sure you are fascinated about driving a BMW. You know how much I wanted one. Now that I have one, I need some time to get used to it. I myself am still very circumspect about taking it for a spin. I am also very emotionally attached to the car at the moment. Sorry about this, but I have to say No to your request. Period. ” That’s it!

Of course the way you say this makes all of the difference, but along with the tone, what is important is the structure of the answer. Rather than starting with a straight No, the answer starts with understanding your friend’s reason behind the request. What follows next is a very genuine anxiety. The clincher for me though was the “emotional attachment” part. At this point you make your friend feel sorry for you which is when you pull the trigger and shoot down the request. As you see the answer does not go onto add “Surely, next time, a month later etc.,”. These may make your friend feel better at the moment but all the initial work you did is lost because for one, your answer turns into an excuse and two, your friend might show up next month and make the same request. Let’s look at an alternate answer to the request:

“Hey, I am sorry man. I have to say No to that. I am sure you are fascinated about driving a BMW. You know how much I wanted one. Now that I have one, I need some time to get used to it. I myself am still very circumspect about taking it for a spin. I am also very emotionally attached to the car at the moment.”

The only difference between the first answer and the one above is where the No comes. In the answer above, you have lost the friend after the first sentence and everything that follows sounds like an excuse, however true.

When I realized I should start saying yes less, I made the mistake of getting the structure wrong. I wanted to get over the tough part first – saying No. I would then think of an excuse which generally falls to deaf ears. It was an excuse in most cases because I feared the truth would make me look well, let’s say, very human (remember, emotional attachment?). But it is this humanness that really makes the process of saying No easy.

So the next time you want to say no to someone, remember the structure and remember to just give them the real reason. It may make you look human at the moment, but well, that is the whole point- That’s the moment before the no.

Looking back, I don’t really regret all the things I said Yes to. I would like to leave you with the words of Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt:

“Find a way to say yes to things. Say yes to invitations to a new country. Say yes to meeting new friends. Say yes to learning a new language, picking up a new sport. Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job. Yes is how you find your spouse, and even your kids. Even if it’s a bit edgy, a bit out of your comfort zone, saying yes means you will do something new, meet someone new and make a difference in your life, and likely in others’ lives as well. … Yes is a tiny word that can do big things. Say it often.”

Written in July 2015.


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