It should go without saying that a boss is owed an explanation when an employee tells her no. And it better be a good one. But what about professional colleagues who don’t hold that kind of power? What about a LinkedIn contact who wants to meet for coffee? Or the coworker in charge of the volunteer committee?
In popular psychology, a vocal minority (reformed pushovers, perhaps?) believe that the best way to say no is to follow it up with a decisive period and dead silence. Offering an excuse gives the asker an opportunity to invalidate or chip away at it. Offering an apology provides an opening, as well.
While few folks are that terse, even the Mayo Clinic, in an online article on stress management, recommends brevity: “State your reason for refusing the request, but don’t go on about it. Avoid elaborate justifications or explanations.”
So what does a proper refusal sound like? Brief with no elaboration?
On the contrary, in a professional context it pays to give a reason. “The particulars of your reason for saying no make very little difference. But having a reason does,” writes Harvard Business Review blogger Peter Bregman.
“If you just say no and don’t give a reason, it hurts the relationship,” he elaborates in an interview. “You can come across to the other person as uncaring and unreasonable.”
Because careers depend on relationships, “You have to learn how to say no in a way that preserves the relationship,” he says, and an honest explanation is usually all it takes.
“Maybe you’re serving on too many boards already. Maybe what they’re asking you to do doesn’t play to your strengths,” says Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners management consulting firm. “Having a reason and being strong about it, I’ve never had someone say, ‘C’mon, pretty please?’”
Still, it’s probably a good idea to develop a defensive strategy. “You will get pushback when you’ve decided to say ‘no’ to something. There will always be people who think their urgent item requires your attention,” writes SmartBlog on Leadership contributor Mary Jo Asmus. “Find a respectful and logical way to let them know how you made the decision to forgo the task in favor of doing other things that are essential.”
Giving a reason “is a way of communicating priorities, letting others know what’s important,” she elaborates.
There are other things people can do to soften their refusal without giving in. “Decline the request in such a way that it’s clear you’re not rejecting the person,” Bregman says.
Act appreciative, he adds: “It’s almost never an insult when people make requests of you. They’re asking for your help because they trust you and they believe in your capabilities. So thank them for thinking of you.”
Be open to problem solving and “making it work,” if indeed it can work to both parties’ benefit.
“If someone tries to overcome your logical reason, I say – you should listen! They might have a point,” says Asmus, founder and president of Aspire Collaborative Services executive consulting firm.
Bregman knows from personal experience that being talked into something isn’t necessarily bad. “The advantage to being honest is the person may be able to come up with a way around your reason,” he says.
In his case, he had turned down a prospective client because he knew the client could easily find someone who’d do the work for cheaper. Bregman felt it was a waste of time even to get into the details of the project. But the client’s CEO wanted Bregman and was willing to pay his rates. “I’d told him no and he talked to the CEO and came back and said, ‘That’s within our budget,’” Bregman recalls. “So he changed my no into a yes.”
Giving a reason “sparks a legitimate, useful conversation that may lead to a deal that changes your no into a yes for all the right reasons – because your reason for refusing in the first place no longer applies,” he says.
Bregman’s advice is predicated on having a good reason, but what if someone simply doesn’t want to do what’s asked of him or her? In that case, “That’s just not how I want to spend my time” sounds better than “I don’t wanna,” Bregman says.
“It takes courage, but it’s better than a lie,” he says.
One excuse that won’t fly is “I don’t have time” – end of story.
“It’s a cop-out,” Asmus says. “Be honest about your priorities.”