“Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring, and integrity, they think of you.” (H. Jackson Brown, Jr.)
When I was in the business world, it happened all too often. I would call the sales manager at a favorite hotel and leave a message asking if they had space for a workshop on such-and-such a date. And I would get no response.
Or I would call a member of one of the nonprofits we managed and ask if he was interested in serving on a taskforce to meet with the Governor over health policy. The response: crickets.
Or maybe I would ask a speaker to let me know if she was available to do a keynote at a client’s annual meeting. More crickets.
As I delved into this growing phenomenon, I discovered that the failure to respond wasn’t generally due to the individual being out of town, or on vacation, or even too busy. But simply because they didn’t want to say “no” to me. They felt it was preferable to leave me hanging than to say no, they didn’t have meeting space on the day I was seeking, or no, they couldn’t participate in a conference, or no, they were too busy to get involved in a committee.
One was even forthright enough to tell me she was sorry she hadn’t called, but she just didn’t have the heart to say “no” to me.
“I just didn’t want to disappoint you, Donna,” she told me.
Here’s the thing: I’m a grown-up. I can take it. I’ve heard “no” plenty of times in my life, and with very few exceptions, I took it quite well. Really. While “yes” is certainly my preferred response, “no” is the next-best thing, because it allows me to move to Plan B . . . and there’s always a Plan B.
Are we all becoming so milquetoasty that we can’t say no anymore?
There are now executive classes and self-help books teaching us how to say no. What has brought us to the point that we are paying “experts” to help us be more assertive—with our employees, our co-workers, our family, and our customers.
We are forking over big dough to have someone tell us what we already know—and we do, don’t we?—that it’s okay to say no. We’re afraid we’ll hurt someone’s feelings, we’ll offend, we won’t be liked if we say no. Have we really thought this through? Wouldn’t we rather be told the truth than strung along and prevented from moving to the next option?
Likewise, don’t say maybe when you know the answer is no. Believe me, people won’t think less of you because you say no to them. But they will think less of you when you say maybe and then never follow-up, or when you say yes, but don’t mean it . . . when you don’t return a phone call or reply to an e-mail.
As business professionals—or human beings, for that matter—few things are more important than our reputations. They follow us everywhere, and often precede us. We all know somebody about whom others say, “Oh, he never follows through,” “You just can’t rely on her,” or “I can’t get her to return a simple call.” There can be multiple reasons for such behavior—they’re too busy, too important, too disorganized, or maybe they never learned the importance of common courtesy. But if the reason is that you can’t bear to say no to a friend or colleague, get over it.
Do you have a problem saying no? Maybe it’s easy to say to your spouse, but hard to be that direct with a client or a friend. Maybe you’re good at saying no at work, but at home you’re something of a marshmallow.
Practice. Next time you’re asked to do something you really don’t want to do, don’t hem, don’t haw. Look that person in the eye and say with all sincerity:
- I’m sorry, I can’t do that
- No, I’m afraid that date won’t work for me. I hope you’ll ask me again, though.
- No, my plate is full right now. But it was kind of you to ask.
Now, I’m not advocating for us all to become selfish, me-first jerks. The world’s already crowded with them. If some asks you to do something and you are able—even if it’s a bit of an inconvenience—why not say yes and spread some kindness and generosity? But if you really can’t, or really don’t want to, say no. Say it loud. Say it proud.
Say it with kindness, respect, appreciation, regret—or whatever fits the occasion. But as the old song says, “don’t say you will when, baby, you won’t, and don’t say you do when, baby, you don’t!”
Say no to me. It’s okay.
“Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to face the truth. Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity.” (W. Clement Stone)
[One new feature of my website is on the home page where I invite your brief stories of kindness. If you’ve extended, received, or witnessed a a kindness, I hope you will consider sharing your story. There’s a link to the submission form. Let’s spread the kindness!]