A while back, Slacker Manager bemoaned micromanaging colleagues who over use “call colleague X” as thier next action (a la David Allen).

And that got me thinking about saying No.

Most of us are inclined to accept any task that comes our way at work– whether we have the bandwith to do the task or not. We take on tasks because we don’t want to disappoint people.

But we do end up disappointing people when our Yes doesn’t mean anything.

There are alternatives to a reflexive Yes:

  • Not now, at some later time.
  • Not by me, but another co-worker.
  • At this time, if you are willing to help me with ________.
  • At this time, instead of __________.


These answers present the possiblity of a choice or negotiation.

When someone says Yes without a clear plan to accomplish the task, the other person waits hopefully (or impatiently) as their options for getting the task done dribble away.

When you can’t or won’t do something, saying No allows the other person to move on to find some option that will work. (Jeffrey Phillips talks about Getting to No –via Frank Patrick— as failing fast… and then moving on to more productive.)

So why is it so hard to say No?

Many of us have Rules about saying No:

Always cooperate.

Always be considerate.

Always be helpful.

Treat the boss and his requests with respect.

(fill in your rule here)

(For ideas on transforming rules, look here.)

Some of us don’t know how to say No in a way that doesn’t feel mean. Try a one of the alternatives to a relfexive Yes, or Satir’s Soft Spurn (from Jerry Weinberg’s More Secrets of Consulting):

Show appreciation
Give a regretful No (but no excuses)
Make an opening for some future relationship

“I’m flattered that you’d ask me. Unfortunately, I’m unable to do that at this time.”

If you can’t say No, your Yes doesn’t mean anything.

(Jerry will be leading a session on choosing Yes or No at the Aye Conference in November.)