Learning to Say No

Learning to Say No

Are you one of those people who has a hard time saying no? I sometimes struggle with saying no, but am trying to get better at it—and I have. Otherwise, I take on way too much. Here are my issues—I am sure many of you can relate.

  • Someone asks for a call to learn more about what we do, or they are looking for work, need help with a project, or are just looking to catch up for coffee. I get this all the time. Taking all those meetings and calls takes a lot of time.
  • I am asked to volunteer for projects or boards of organizations—everything from clients asking me to volunteer, to my Rotary Club, to my 12-year-old daughter’s school, or extra-curricular activities.
  • New business opportunities. Sometimes our capacity is tapped. There are times when you just cannot do the work and deliver a great product. I know others who don’t seem to care, but I do. Unless we hire more staff (which would need training, time, etc.), we truly cannot deliver the quality of work we want within the client’s timeline. But how do you say no to opportunities that you are sole-sourced or even for RFP opportunities that you know you are qualified for and can win? That is like throwing money out the window!

I have to learn to say no to these sometimes. I have spent time online and talking to colleagues to see how they manage it. Some are in worse shape than I. Some are just cold and emotionless and say no to everything! Here is what I have learned to be able to say no effectively for both the person asking and myself.

  • In the past, I have met with everyone (either by phone or face-to-face) who has reached out to me for time. I have always felt that many have given time to me in the past as I grew in my professional career and that I should give back to all who ask. As I get older and my network gets larger, this is not possible. I do respond to every email or phone call, but I don’t always agree to meet or take a call. I also give them leads of others who may be more applicable to what they are looking for. For instance, if someone is looking for a job with us and we are not hiring, I tell them so and direct them to people for whom I think they may be a good fit. I ask for their résumé, review it, and keep it on file. I used to believe that meeting everyone who is looking was good, because you don’t want to miss out on a great person just because you are not hiring today. With social media and a way closer-knit industry than ever, you can probably find people who are a great fit when you need them.
  • Coffee with colleagues and friends is critical, but also time consuming. I have transformed my way of thinking. I need to determine if a meeting at this time (face-to-face or a call) will benefit me or them in the next three to twelve months. Sometimes, it is just for me to catch up with someone I have not seen in a year or more. I need to evaluate if the meeting is personal or professional (or in many instances, both), whether it can be put off further, or if I will benefit from it now or in the near future. Likewise, if someone is reaching out who is in my personal network and is looking for advice, information, or assistance, and if I feel I can help them by meeting (and not something larger), then that qualifies.
  • When asked to volunteer, I have started to say no more often, but based on family time commitments and the project. We work for many charities and non-profits, so to say yes to volunteering for one and not another does not seem fair. So, we often discount services and “give back” that way instead of volunteering.
  • I try to focus my volunteering through Rotary as I am a member of the Rotary Club of Nanaimo. But sometimes I have to say no to them as well. I volunteer in non-leadership roles due to my present workload and travel. But when available, I work the fund raisers and community “hands-on” projects.
  • I volunteer for my daughter’s activities when I can. Again, due to workload and travel, I cannot be a team manager or coach, but when I am at a game, I can work the score clock or drive kids to out-of-town games. That way, I am helping where possible versus trying to do something I cannot do well due to work commitments.
  • When it comes to new business opportunities, I do a greater amount of triage. Where I used to set up a call or face-to-face for every inbound lead or follow-up from a conference or event, I respond to all, but let them know we are not a sales agency (which most are looking for). I also let them know what we do, how we get paid, and what we cost ($375 per hour/$3,000 a day—typically a minimum of five days’ service). If we are not the solution (due to services needed or costs), I try to provide some direction on where they can best find the services they are looking for. That has saved a great deal of time and really helped the organization seeking us out.
  • Then there are the requests for us to do business or the RFPs. This is the tough one. As noted, sometimes we are just too busy to take on another project. The past 18 months have been very busy. As a result, we have had to say no to projects I would have loved to do, or projects that would grow our bank account. But the “no” in these cases is based on reputation. It is tough at times, but sometimes I have to look and ask, “If we win this business, can we deliver on time with the same level of quality as we are presently delivering for clients?” If the answer is no, then the answer is no! In the last four months, we have turned down three pieces of business that were exclusively ours and referred them to a competitor. In addition, we have chosen not to bid on four major pieces of great business that we would have loved to do, but knew if we won we would be too busy to do a good job, let alone on time. So, “no” in these cases comes from ensuring that we can maintain our quality reputation. I have been told by almost all of those seven organizations that they truly appreciate our decision; they are disappointed, but respect us for the choice we made (and that many others would not) and hope to do business with us down the line.

I can’t say that I am practicing all this diligently, but I am working on it. As one group that I belong to often says—“progress not perfection!” Let me know how you are able to say “no” or about your inability to do so!

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  1. I never miss an opportunity to read your blog Brent. Always great take aways and a valuable viewpoint.

    • Maggie,
      Thanks so much for the kind words. Hope you are well. It was so great to catch up in May!


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