Every dedicated business professional I know can’t find enough hours in a day to do their best work, and yet they often find themselves saying yes to new requests from the people around them. In some cases it may be fear of retribution by the boss, but more often they just hate to disappoint others, and end up instead with high stress and low credibility in a crisis to deliver.
In addition to saying yes too often, professionals under pressure often say no poorly, by attacking the requestor or by avoiding any definitive response. Either of these approaches usually makes a stressful situation worse, often leading to guilt, burnout, and continuing accommodation.
The solution to this problem is part of a bigger challenge – taking back control of your work life, and regaining a sense of freedom and influence, as described in the classic book, “Work-Life Brilliance: Tools to Break Stress and Create the Life and Health You Crave,” by Denise R. Green, a noted executive coach, speaker, and CEO of Brilliance, Inc.
A key part of her message that resonated with me, as a mentor to entrepreneurs, is her guidance on how to deal with the constant demands and requests that every business founder faces. She provides pragmatic advice for dealing with the three pains of the brain (social, status, and priorities) that erode your control and your satisfaction with work that you really love to do.
Specifically, here are six steps to declining requests without actually saying no, that she and I both recommend when your plate is full or your priorities need to be elsewhere:
- Create a pause before responding. Did you ever notice how a yes can slip out of your mouth or get sent in an email before you even think about it? It’s tough to undo that yes without hard feelings or guilt. Before you respond, at least take a deep breath, or better yet, buy some time with language like “Let me give this some thought, and I’ll get back to you by the end of the day.” Be sure to follow up as promised, to maintain your credibility.
- Clearly decline without using the word no. Skip the “maybes” or “I’ll try.” Make sure your response is clear and concise, with wording such as “I wish I could but I’m already over-committed,” “I’m just not able right now to do the job you need,” or “Anything new this week with my schedule is out of the question.” Be sure to keep a smile on your face.
- Share a credible reason for declining. Resist the urge to complain about being overworked and under-appreciated, and share an honest explanation that you think is most credible with the requestor. For example, “I have another commitment at the same time that I can’t move,” or “This isn’t my area of expertise, so I’m just not the best person.”
- Offer sincere gratitude (as relevant). Ending with gratitude can soften the decline. It may sound like, “Thank you for considering me,” or “I’m pleased that you would trust me with such an important request.” Research shows that people pay more attention to endings, rather than beginnings, but you may choose to start with the thank-you.
- Make an offer that serves both your needs. Do not make an offer simply to make yourself feel better. A good offer might be, “Here is the contact info for the perfect person for this task,” or “I can recommend a new tool which will solve that problem with minimal effort by anyone.” The objective is to get the job done, and stave off future requests.
- Drop the guilt. Most times, guilt is just a bad habit – the result of trying to live up to unrealistic, unattainable standards. If you feel guilt, ask yourself, “Have I harmed someone or acted in conflict with my values?” If yes, apologize, then do better. Otherwise don’t let guilt trick you into thinking you are actually doing something productive for you.
Remember, you don’t have to be viewed as a yes person to be viewed as a leader. In fact, if you look at the leaders and most respected people around you, they are clear but selective in what they support and agree to do. They have learned the art of controlling their priorities, and they feel less stressed and more productive as a result. That’s the best way to enjoy work and life.