You were at your desk at 8am this morning. Thanks to the steady march of horribly familiar interruptions, you’ve ticked off only 3 things from today’s ‘to do’ list. Not to mention the telephone. Everyone wants a piece of you: your professional judgement, your time, the odd social catch up and those relentless beyond-your-control deadlines. As for the emails - thirty, today, so far - most will be a well- intended cc, ‘just for info’. But in case you miss anything critical, you’ll scan through them later. Time’s getting on. You really should go to the gym tonight. But you promised your significant other that - no later than 9pm - you’d eat dinner together. Then out of the blue you hear the great news: ‘Our new client wants us to propose on Project X by the end of the week. Drop everything for a team meeting this afternoon!’
Sound familiar? What would help on a day like this? Would you like to learn one simple technique you could start to apply right now which could improve your effectiveness and productivity by the end of day?
That technique is: ‘Practise the art of saying ‘No!’’
When is ‘No’ a Dirty Word?
As auditors, we pride ourselves on high standards of technical knowledge, client service and professional conduct. Our culture encourages ‘stretch’. And, often perfectionists, we work in teams structured on command and control. Against this backdrop, then, is it surprising ‘No!’ is often considered a dirty word? But said Tony Blair: ‘The art of leadership is saying ‘No!’, not saying ‘Yes!’’
But Why Should we be Saying No?
If your day is nothing like the picture I’ve painted, if you’re clear on your work and life goals and feel you’re prioritising your time to achieve them, if you are satisfying all your personal and professional ambitions, if your stakeholders are in harmony, then you don’t need this guide.
But, you’ll find this guide useful, if any of the following ring a bell:
• work/domestic overload,
• professional overstretch
• professional understretch
• long hours leading to stress, depression and physical health complaints
• quality concerns
• conflicting commitments,
• burgeoning responsibilities
• and so on.
An inability to say ‘No!’ can take you away from your core goals (professional and personal) and your personal values. It can lead to emotional unrest – such as guilt. And when it results in work and domestic overload, it can affect the quality of your output. It can cause you to miss deadlines, damaging your reputation and destroying your self esteem.
Ok that’s the horror story. We know we should say ‘No!’ sometimes. But it’s not that easy is it?
What Stops us from Saying No?
Ours is a professional culture embedded in client (internal and external) service. We are ‘people pleasers’. We don’t want to appear selfish or uncaring. Sometimes, we are under pressure, obligated, even bullied to say ‘Yes!’ when we would prefer to say ‘No!’ Sometimes we say ‘Yes!’ because we don’t want to offend, trigger repercussions, elicit anger or displeasure. If we say ‘No!’, we worry: ‘They won’t like me’, ‘They’ll think I’m rude’, ‘They’ll think I can’t do it’.
And, as professionals with the highest standards, we think: ‘I should be able to do this’ or ‘I might miss out on an opportunity’.
In part, this arises from our own limiting beliefs, lack of confidence in our being able to deal with the response to ‘No!’. But it can also be exacerbated by the environment we work in. There’s certainly plenty to stop us saying from ‘No!’
So let’s look at the positive ways we can turn this around.
When Should we be Saying No?
Everyone will have their bespoke response - depending on unique professional and personal goals, value systems and relationships with and responsibilities towards stakeholders - the team, boss, family, friends, and self.
We may conclude, for example, that we should be saying ‘No!’ when a task is beyond our abilities and we could potentially jeopardise quality through insufficient confidence/skills/experience. Or we may want to spend our limited time on a project closer to our core goals.
Remember saying ‘Yes!’ means you will have to say ‘No!’ to something else along the line - that visit to the gym, that well over-due technical reading you promised yourself or the dinner with your partner.
Or perhaps you have no predilection for, no interest in the request at all.
Try Some Self-coaching
• What is the return on my personal investment in this activity? Think core goals, business and personal. What is a priority? Think future, not present. Also remember the 80/20 rule: 80% of our success comes from just 20% of our activities.
• What are the consequences of not doing it? How do those consequences affect my goals? Is the price of saying ‘No!’ worth the perceived benefit?
• Do I have the right to say no? Am I being told rather than asked? Is it part of my contract? Outright ‘No!’ may not be an option. But win-win negotiation certainly is.
• Have a look at your ‘to do’ list. Each time you make another list, what is carried forward? Can you drop these items?
• Make a ‘stop doing’ list. We need to say ‘No!’ to people and other demands. What about all those habits, routines, behaviours and tolerances we spend 80% of our time on? Take a good hard look and say ’No!’ to some habitual activities too. You could start with all those emails, you are so kindly cc-ed on.
How do I say No?
Does this sound like a silly question? Many of us are so unused to expressing the ‘No’ word, we have forgotten what it sounds like, how it feels, how to do it! For the rusty among us, here are some tips:
• Tone is total. Be convincing but not aggressive. You are aiming for an assertive, firm retort but also polite and respectful. Say ‘No!’ and mean it.
• Body language matters. Align your body with your words. What is your expression saying? Is it reinforcing your ‘No!’ or is it expressing heartfelt regret? A mixed message will dilute the effect and open you up to possibly unwarranted negotiation. Look the propositioner in the eye, take an assertive stance and reinforce with a robust shake of the head. If you are sitting down, stand up (even if you are on the phone). Show them - and yourself - you mean business. A written ‘no’ should adopt the same style - firm, direct, straight to the point.
• Words count. A simple crisp ‘No!’ is sublime. But not always appropriate!
o The first 5 seconds are crucial.
o Say ‘No!’ at the start of the sentence.
o Be concise without being abrupt.
o Express thanks for asking.
o Avoid ‘I’m sorry’ - it suggests guilt and the potential to weaken.
o Beware of excuses. They weaken your stance. Reasons are the truth. Excuses put you on the defensive.
o Give your reason, without apologies.
o State you must say ‘No!’ because you do not want to let them down; you care enough to want to engage fully.
o Stick to your guns. Don’t take ‘No!’ for an answer in response to your own ‘No!’
Other Useful Tactics
• Negotiate. Particularly useful when you feel you don’t have the right to say ‘No!’.
o Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. Use open questions: tell me, what, how, when…..
o Stay positive. Say what you can do to help. For instance explain what your contribution could be under the current deadline.
o State the repercussions. ‘If I offer to do this then….’
o Suggest an alternative solution. Find someone else to do it.
• Ask for time to think and get back to them. This allows you to respond effectively, taking into account your personal time style. Are you an ‘in time’ or a 'through time’ person?*
• Be prepared for non-acceptance. Know how far you are willing to negotiate.
• Pre-empt: ‘I need to let you know…’ or ‘Can I stop you there?’ The request mustn’t progress too far.
Practice Makes Perfect
Practise saying ‘No!’ with your clients. But first, start with public services or in shops and call centres etc. Try saying ‘No!’ with your children, partner, friends and other non-work contacts. This is a transferable skill. The more you do it, the easier it will become, you will banish the fear. Or ‘Feel the fear, and do it anyway’. And graduate to the professional ‘No!’.
Above all, don’t let yourself become the easy target. Being unable to say ‘No!’ have you become the departmental ‘mark’?
So where are you going to start? Take a deep breath and ask yourself: ‘What are you going to say ‘No!’ to today?’
This article was written by Carol McLachlan for CareersinAudit.com
*’In time’ and ‘through time’ are Neuro-linguistic Programming terms for behavioural styles. Both of these can be adapted through coaching.
If you are ‘in time’, you prefer to focus on the present, rather than the past or the future. Both seem relatively remote. You easily get into ‘flow’, totally absorbed in an activity without having any sense of elapsed time. Traditional time management focuses heavily on through time activity, which can be huge gulf to jump if you are predominately ‘in time’.
If you are a ‘through time’ person, you are conscious of time passing and the interaction of events. You are able to plan ahead, work to plan and multi-task. You will probably be on time for meetings. You can see the ‘big picture’. But you may find it harder to ignore past events and future expectations in order to concentrate on the present.
Most of us are a mix of both styles, with a leaning to one over the other. Your preferred style can also vary according to activity and circumstances. For example, you may be more ‘through time’ at work and ‘more in time’ at home or on holiday.