Halelly's 5A Formula for saying no without making enemies

[Note: if you like to listen to learn, this post is also a podcast episode. Listen to it on episode 87!]

Halellys 5A formula for saying no without making enemies blog TalentGrow

If you have a tendency to say Yes too much (we discussed why you shouldn’t in episode 82 of the TalentGrow Show podcast), or have a hard time saying No to requests from your boss, co-workers, employees, clients, or even in your personal life, then this blog post is for you.

Read on to learn some of the typical reasons we are reluctant to say No, some totally legitimate reasons why you should be saying No, and how to do it in a way that protects your time, independence, integrity, and your relationships and trust using my 5A Formula for Saying No.

So first, what’s got so many of us reluctant to say No?

Why don’t we want to say No?

Why is saying No something so many of us avoid like the plague?

  • We worry we’ll be seen as someone who is not a team-player or has a can-do attitude.
  • We worry that it will make the other person resent or dislike us.
  • We worry that it will damage trust or intimacy in the relationship.
  • We worry we will be passed up for future opportunities either as a direct retaliation or because they’ll assume we will just say no again.
  • (Are there any other reasons you are reluctant to say no?)

But you have got to say no if it’s for a legitimate reason.

Why say No? There are some legitimate reasons

You need to be clear about why you are saying "no" in the first place. This will help you stand by your decision and avoid guilt. Let’s face it – there are DEFINITELY times when your answer SHOULD BE YES! So give it thought and don’t go with a knee-jerk or ‘gut’ reaction here.

“I don’t feel like it” is probably not a very legit reason.

So what are some appropriate reasons to say No?

Here are a few key reasons that would may saying No a totally legit choice:

  • An unreasonable request. Some requests are just absurd, or inappropriate, or unreasonable. If you still want to say "yes," perhaps you can offer a more reasonable alternative.
  • Poor match with your skillset or job responsibilities. If you aren’t the right person to be doing it – it’s not your job, you shouldn’t be doing it, there’s someone who is better suited for the task, or it subverts an established process, chain of command, or assigned responsibility. There is someone else who is probably better skilled, or for whom this is a priority, or who should be working on this, and by you taking it over, you’re getting in their way of success or accountability.
  • Poor alignment with your goals. While you may be tempted to commit to a task outside of your stated goals to be (or be seen as) a team player, you should only do so if it does not jeopardize your other work. This is not a selfish reason – if you’re working in a goal-directed way, it means that your goals were designed in alignment to your team’s, your department’s, your chain of command. So for you to take on something that doesn’t align with those goals ultimately hurts everyone involved, not just you.
  • Conflicts with current priorities.
    If you really don’t have enough time to do it at all or to do it in a way that meets your (and their) quality standards for the outcomes given the other work you’ve already committed to. If you do not have the time required to devote to it, you are not helping anybody by committing to it because it will either fall through the cracks or cause you to fall behind on other work that is already on your list of priorities.
  • If it’s not a priority, you will need to defer, delegate, or re-negotiate priorities. Even if the task aligns in some way to your goals, it may not be a top priority. So if you’re being asked to move it to the top of the task list, you will need to say ‘no’ to that and either do it when your other work is finished or if it’s urgent then either someone else will need to take care of it while you continue to work according to your pre-determined priorities OR your work will need to be re-prioritized and other tasks will be deferred or delegated – you’ll need to get agreement about that from those who are expecting those results.

So the secret is in ensuring it’s based on a good reason, and HOW you deliver the message that will yield the right results or the outcomes you dread.

How to say No in a way that protects your time, independence, integrity, and relationships

First, here’s how NOT to do it:

You know that BS about “No is a complete sentence”?

It’s not. Not if you care about the person, your relationship, and your ability to have trust and collaboration in the future. So let’s not fool ourselves, you should avoid saying ‘just’ no.

In fact, I might surprise you, but I actually would like you to avoid saying ‘no’ at all.

“No” is not a good enough response when you care about maintaining your relationship with the requester.

While you will be saying no in spirit, you’ll need to do it in a diplomatic, emotionally-intelligent, and relationship-protecting way.

There are more and less effective ways of saying it.

Your ‘No’ response should protect mutual interest and values for both parties involved

Saying No (properly) allows you to honor your values for your self and others. The key is recognizing what are the values you’re trying to honor and trying to create a win-win outcome for the parties involved whenever possible. And definitely avoid sacrificing yourself and your values to others.

There are multiple values you are trying to uphold here both for yourself and for the other(s). Here are a few key ones.

Values for Self:

  • You want to honor the sovereignty of your own plans and priorities rather than allowing someone else to override them, side-step them, or throw them off the proverbial cliff.

  • You want to maintain ownership of your time and energy and not relinquish it to others to do with as they wish.

  • You want to demonstrate to others that you are a responsible, thoughtful person with plans and priorities when they come to you with requests. Knowing that you’ve given your own schedule and plan some strategic thought can impress upon others that you are a serious, self-respecting person to be taken seriously and respected.

    When you readily throw out your own plans when someone comes to you with a request, and especially when you do this frequently, you are sending a message: “My own plans don’t matter. You are more important then me. Your needs trump mine. I don’t respect myself. Your wish is my command.”

    Whether you intend to do this or not, it’s sent implicitly, like subliminal messaging. And whether the other person thinks this or not, they pick up on this messaging subconsciously and it definitely affects their ability to respect you and your plans.

    So you need to figure out how to communicate that this is a value for you regardless of whether you accept or reject their request or assignment. This is an important part of your message and needs to be demonstrated as explicitly as possible rather than just assumed or implied.
  • You value being seen as helpful and supportive of others – your boss, your peers, important clients and vendors – you want them to know that you care about them and that you want to serve them. It’s your job. You want to demonstrate that you want to be cooperative. No question, this is an important value that is often behind the decision to say ‘yes’ and take on too much or the wrong thing.

Values for Others:

  • You want to support others in getting their needs met in the best possible way. In many cases, if you were to say ‘yes’ when you really can’t, or shouldn’t, take on the task, you’d be doing the requester a disservice ultimately. You would be causing them to have either a delay in receiving the deliverable, or they would get a lesser quality deliverable on time, if you would take on something that you don’t have the time, or the skill, to complete in a high quality way.

    It’s very likely that they didn’t realize you had a conflict of priorities with their request. They probably didn’t intend to give you something that you couldn’t really accomplish in the given timeline. So by informing them about your current conflicting priorities, you are helping them get a better understanding of the situation.

    By saying no and helping them make an informed decision to ensure they get the results they seek. They might need to reassign it to a more suitable or more available person. Or they might decide to re-prioritize their deadline or help reprioritize your existing workload. By explaining your current conflicting deadline or workload, you could help them avoid having unrealistic expectations or disappointment later.

  • You are also helping to sustain a good relationship and prevent corrosion of trust on both sides by being assertive and looking for a win-win solution. You are also helping them avoid doing something that frustrates or stresses you out when it probably wasn’t their intention. And you are preventing them from getting annoyed, disappointed in, or frustrated with you by not upholding unrealistic expectations that you will eventually let them down on if you just said ‘yes’.

Bottom line: saying No is not bad, it’s good for everyone involved, because it takes into account the objective reality facts of the situation and helps both parties find a reasonable alternative that allows for a win-win outcome.

Halelly’s 5A Formula for Saying No: Maintain sovereignty over your own priorities without being seen as an uncooperative jerk

I suggest you approach this difficult but doable and important task using my 5A formula. I’ll describe the five steps with A-words, and offer an example.

Let’s say that Ellen, a leader from the Marketing department, is asking you to write a section of a white paper she’s developing for your organization. She explains she needs your subject-matter expertise and that the deadline is this Friday.

You understand the importance of having accurate and useful white papers for marketing purposes, but you are currently working on an important client deliverable for your department that is taking up all of your time and is also due this Friday. So, there’s no way you could take on Ellen’s request and also meet your pre-existing deliverable deadline.

So, you decide that saying ‘No’ is a legitimate and appropriate approach.

But you don’t want to let Ellen down, and you want to maintain a good relationship with her and the marketing team.

Here’s how you should respond, using the 5A formula as your guide:

1. Appreciate the requester and/or request. Don’t start with No. First, you always want to acknowledge the positive value you have for the person and usually for their needs. Start by expressing this to help them feel affirmed and ensure that when you say No, they don’t have any reason to question your appreciation of their work and needs.

For example:

“Ellen, I appreciate your interest in including my perspective and knowledge in your white paper. It sounds like an important project. I would love to support you, and…”

[KEY: Notice I did not use the word “but” here. Use “and” to send a message of cooperativeness vs. competitiveness.]

Assert your conflicting interests or priorities. Fill in the blank about what the requester might not know about your current situation that prevents you from being able to accept their request.

For example:

…I’m currently knee-deep in an important client deliverable that is also due this Friday and requires all of my time.”


3. Suggest Alternatives. These may include suggesting another person who might be qualified to help them and more available, offering to delay their deadline to a time that allows you to successfully complete it given your other, more pressing priorities, or suggesting they help free you of your existing, conflicting deadlines by re-prioritizing or reassigning them (wholly or partially, whatever makes sense).

For example:

“Do you have any flexibility on that deadline? I could work on it next week once this project is done.”

[If not able to delay:] “Perhaps you could ask Jen or Marc on my team – they might have more availability right now and they’re just as knowledgeable about this topic.”

[If not able/willing to ask others or they’re not available:] “If you want, we could go together to [your boss] and see about re-prioritizing my current responsibilities so I can be freed up to help you with this important deadline.” Or, “if you’re willing to re-negotiate the deliverable deadline with the client, I’d be happy to support you on this.”

4. Agree on an approach forward. Once you have discussed some alternatives, the requester will need to choose a way forward that is mutually-acceptable. Don’t leave things hanging and definitely don’t let there be a chance for misinterpretation about who is doing what by when. If you leave this conversation with fuzzy, unclear, or unstated agreement on next steps it will probably come back to haunt you and will ultimately lead to disappointment and damaged trust.

For example:

“Ok, so we agree that you’ll change your deadline and I’ll work on this next week and have it in your inbox next Friday by close of business, right?”
Or, “Ok, sounds like you’ll go check with Jen and Marc to see if they can do this by this Friday, right?”

5. Affirm the importance and value of the request and your relationship with the requester before leaving the conversation, and express your appreciation for their interest in your input to close the conversation on a cooperative and trust-building note.

For example:
“I appreciate your interest in my input and your flexibility, Ellen. I definitely wanted to be sure that you meet your deadline and realized the challenges with my accepting your initial request. I’m glad we figured out a way forward that allows you to be successful and avoid frustration or disappointment to either of us.”

This whole exchange would probably take about 3 minutes of your time. But it will allow you to keep your sanity, your sovereignty, and your relationships in tact, and help everyone involved get the best possible outcome in view of the objective reality and constraints of the situation.

Your turn:

  1. What do you think of this approach? Will you try it? And if you have tried it, what were your results? Comment below!
  2. Share this if you found it valuable. I find that a LOT of people have this kind of challenge and are not sure how to deal with it. Let’s help more people, together!
  3. Ask me a question or tell me a topic that you would like me to cover in a future blog post or episode of the TalentGrow Show. I make this blog and podcast to serve you – so please don’t be shy!  

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