April 13, 2012

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Learning how to say no

The most fascinating thing I’m learning about business these days is the art and discipline of saying no. Many people aren’t comfortable with saying no. I’m practising how to say no – how to set clear boundaries and negotiate within them. There are a few things I say yes to: time with family, doing good work on my enterprise social software consulting engagement, learning new skills and ideas. I’m experimenting with saying no by default to all these other requests which don’t strike a chord within me.

It’s a good time to learn how to say no well, and when to say it. I have a main engagement that I want to be 100% awesome on, the savings to avoid desperation, and the terrific Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreements (BATNAs) of learning and discovery. It’s okay to turn things down, because I know I’ll use the time well. This is as good a time as any to become comfortable with choosing.

This is something I didn’t get to practise much as an employee, because there was often someone to whom I could defer decisions. Scope? I knew the project manager would keep me honest. Requests from different departments? I ran things by my manager to find out how to prioritize, and sometimes asked him to play the bad cop.

Now I’m in charge of my time. When I say no, it’s me saying no, not some process or some externally-set priority.

I don’t often say no directly, of course. There are many ways to negotiate something without saying no and without setting up a win-lose situation. I like thinking of it as being firm and professional, without being confrontational. It’s not rejection for the sake of rejection; more like nudging people towards others for whom they would be a better fit, more like figuring out how I really want to spend my time and focusing on that.

I like this. The process of saying no is the process of clarifying understandings and helping people find better fits. When I’m super-good at saying no, I’ll have a collection of templates that I can easily customize (I regret that I will not be able to speak at your conference because I limit my travel, etc.), and somehow people will end up happier than when they asked. That might be a tough one, but I can work on saying no thoughtfully.

Yes-to-everything is another approach much encouraged by blogs, books, and the occasional movie, but looking at that plays out in other people’s lives… I think it would drive me crazy. I wouldn’t be happy saying yes for the sake of saying yes, particularly as many of the things I want in my life are different from what other people want. I’m happy doing a few things well, building new strengths on old ones, experimenting with small steps and new directions (but not too many). This feels right.

My dad is probably the yes-est person I know. He’s amazing at making things happen. People get caught up in his ideas. He inspires yeses, and he says yes to life with way more intensity than I do. (People who tell me I’m energetic have never met my dad. ;) ) Even then, I’m sure he says no to some things – or does so by suggesting even better versions of the request, things that are more in line with what gives him energy.

Something to think about. What really is my default? It’s not actually no either, is it? I think it’s more along the lines of “Let’s find out, let’s find something that works for both of us, even if that means other people taking advantage of the opportunity”. Hmm…