Nutshell: How to get good at saying "no"

Written by
Future Talent Learning

04 Aug 2020

04 Aug 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Time is limited, so agreeing to everything at work will undermine our career goals and inhibit our success.

Today, there is more competition for our time and attention than ever before. So, how are we supposed to focus and achieve our goals in the face of such abundant choice?

One answer may lie in the diary pages of investor Warren Buffett.

In his professional lifetime, Buffett has accumulated an eye-watering net worth of more than $70.5bn, making him one of the richest people on earth. Whether or not you see this as a marker of life well lived, it speaks volumes about his proficiency as an investor. And he’s achieved this not by doing more but by doing less.

Why doing less is so important

As well as keeping an almost empty calendar and delegating enthusiastically, Buffett chooses to focus his energies on only a small number of selected opportunities. He revealed this approach in a much-quoted exchange with his personal pilot Mike Flint, whom he encouraged to follow a simple three-part process for identifying his life goals and focusing in on them – now commonly known as the 5/25 prioritisation rule:

  • Step 1 – Write down your top 25 lifetime career goals.
  • Step 2 – Identify the five most important goals.
  • Step 3 – Focus only on those top five goals – and, crucially, disregard all others.

In Buffett’s eyes, the 20 items that don’t make the cut aren’t just benign bystanders; they are enemies we “must avoid at all costs”. This means saying “no” to anything that takes our time and attention away from those top five priorities, even “good” opportunities, if all they do is advance goals six to 25.

For example, Oscar-winning Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who penned the score to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, repeatedly said “no” to pressure from movie executives, refusing to learn English or to leave his native city of Rome to compose – even when offered a free Hollywood apartment. Instead of playing the fame game, he channelled all his energies into his beloved music.

Similar focus can also be seen in the lives of other notable achievers, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Steve Jobs.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on,” said Jobs. “But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the 100 other good ideas.”

Looking at their companies now, we may wonder what made it onto the priority list of these three famous billionaires and, more pertinently, how we should decide on our own top five. In this instance, we may consider Derek Sivers’ ‘hell yeah or no’ approach to decision-making, which proposes that if someone asks you to do something and your first reaction is “hell yeah!”, then do it. If it doesn’t excite you, then say “no”.

Making a ‘not-to-do list

Whatever our goals are, a not-to-do list can play a constructive role in helping us achieve them. This is a list of tasks we must delegate, outsource or politely decline; for example, tasks that are other people’s responsibilities or that we find emotionally draining.

The reason to compile a list is so that we don’t have to think before saying “no” each time such a task presents itself. If it’s on the list, we already know that the cons outweigh the pros, so we can refuse it faster, more easily and with less guilt.

Women, especially, may be wise to make a not-to-do list because of the myth that they are ‘better at multitasking’, when in fact they are simply asked to do more. According to research highlighted in Harvard Business Review in 2018, women are more likely to be asked to take on ‘non-promotable’ tasks such as planning the office party or sitting on low-ranking committees – and they are more likely to agree to do so. It’s therefore worth considering which tasks may help the company, but not necessarily advance your career, when making your list.

Here are a few practical suggestions for what we can probably all stop doing with immediate effect:

  • answering calls from unrecognised numbers; let them go to voicemail instead.
  • accepting invitations to meetings without a clear agenda or end time.
  • checking emails; set an alert and batch check them at certain points in the day.

Regaining control

According to former UK prime minister Tony Blair, “the art of leadership is saying ‘no’, not saying ‘yes’. It is very easy to say ‘yes’.”

We struggle with “no” because experience tells us it can cause hurt, anger and disappointment to others and even jeopardise relationships. We may have trouble saying it to someone more powerful than us or to a person whose reaction we fear; we may be hampered by a sense of indebtedness. We may be prone to people pleasing, driven by our fear of discord and ostracism to go out of our way to meet the needs of colleagues at the expense of our own. And all of this can be exacerbated if we are ‘the new kid’ in the workplace or from an under-represented group, concerned about being perceived as ‘hostile’ and judged more harshly than other colleagues.

But constantly saying “yes” and spreading ourselves too thin is unhelpful – for everyone. 

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, social innovator and speaker Greg McKeown cautions against the feeling of “motion sickness instead of momentum” that can come when we are overworked and underutilised. He advocates not for getting more done in less time, but for doing less, better. This means regaining control of our choices and our time, which in turn means saying “no”.

As marketer and writer (and practising stoic), Ryan Holiday reminds us: “Time is our most irreplaceable asset – we cannot buy more of it. We cannot get a second of it back. We can only hope to waste as little as possible.” Yet we rarely budget for our time with anywhere near the rigour we apply to our finances. 

When you think about it in these terms, it’s a little easier to be firm and unapologetic about safeguarding our time – even with the boss. We can politely explain how taking on another task may jeopardise our productivity or existing commitments. And if they still insist, we can at least ask for a priority list and agree realistic deadlines that won’t create a stressful logjam.

With all colleagues, it helps to remember that we’re saying “no” to the request and not the person. It’s always important to be respectful and have empathy – but still say “no”.

Assertiveness is prosocial 

According to psychologists Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons, “assertive self-expression is direct, firm, positive – and, when necessary, persistent – action intended to promote equality in person-to-person relationships”.

It is definitely not about manipulating people to get our own way. And, if we assert ourselves at every turn, even for unimportant issues, it is less likely that people will listen when there really is a wolf in the office and we need to act now.

Research tells us that, in a work setting, low assertiveness can lead to low achievement, while high assertiveness can hurt social relationships. So, it’s a delicate balance – and one best achieved when we start from a sound footing where we recognise and acknowledge our own value. Having a clear sense of self can also assist with tricky conversations with co-workers.

Language matters – a lot. For example, we should steer away from overly apologetic preambles (such as “I know you’re busy and I’m sorry to let you down, but…”), rambling explanations for why we can’t take on a particular role or task, and the inappropriate sulking or sarcasm of passive aggression.

Using sentences such as “I work better when…” instead of “you need to stop doing X or Y” can diffuse tension and improve understanding and working relationships.

These include:

  • showing gratitude (“Oh, I will be so disappointed to miss this. Thank you for asking me”).
  • showing empathy (“I’m afraid I might need to cancel last minute, leaving you in a scramble to find someone else”) 
  • offering a meaningful alternative (“I can’t attend in person, but I wonder how I can help in some other way?”)

All can be useful tools in your toolkit.

Assertiveness training and role play can also inform our understanding of how to be ‘adaptively assertive’ rather than ‘aggressively assertive’, so that we benefit the people around us and not just ourselves.

For example, mastering our body language can have a positive impact on how our messages are received. While a tense expression, clenched fists or excessive eye contact may be seen as an attempt to dominate the other person (particularly if we are simultaneously invading their personal space), fidgeting, looking down and avoiding eye contact appears weak and submissive; crossed legs or arms can look defensive and suggests we’re not prepared to listen to others’ perspectives. However, standing straight and steady in a relaxed manner, and maintaining adequate eye contact, are hallmarks of assertiveness. When making a difficult phone call, try standing up rather than sitting, as this helps us to feel and sound more confident and assertive.

Just taking the decision to be more assertive can stimulate behaviour change, while practising speaking out loud can help us to find the right pitch, pace and tone to ensure we come across in an appropriate manner.

Reflecting on past situations where we’ve backed down or wished we’d said “no” – and constructing the argument we would have liked to have made – can help prepare us for future scenarios. Where we know we will soon be needing to ‘push back’, we can also try out what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it, considering our objectives and any issues or arguments that are likely to arise.

The more we act in an assertive way, the less uncomfortable the experience will become. We should review our progress along the way, accepting setbacks (where we hit the wrong note or fail to make ourselves heard) as an inevitable part of the self-development process.

Protecting our passions

Stanford Business School Professor and author Jim Collins is another advocate for prioritising and saying “no”. He suggests a ‘stop doing’ list, informed by three questions which complement Buffett’s more goal-orientated approach with a broader work-life focus:

  • What are you deeply passionate about?
  • What activities do you feel you were just ‘made to do’?
  • What can you make a living at?

Were this a Venn diagram, the place where these three circles intersect might ringfence the territory in which to start building a great working life. But again, zeroing in on that target requires a lot of saying “no” because as we’ve established, what we don’t do determines what we can do – and vice versa. 

As the singer Pink laments: “What happened to the dream of a girl president? She’s dancing in the video next to 50 Cent.”

In other words, we should all be careful what we say yes to. And start making progress with “no”.

Test your understanding

  • Explain why it is important to ‘do less’ at work and to get good at saying “no” – and how can we learn to regain control if this doesn’t come naturally.
  • Define the hallmarks of assertiveness (over aggression) in the workplace.

What does it mean for you?

  • Identify your 25 lifetime goals and narrow these to your five top goals.
  • Consider something you said “yes” to recently that doesn’t fit with any of your top five goals. Practise declining this in a professional manner.

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