How to say no

I’ve had a lot of discussions at work recently about how we say no.

More accurately, it’s usually how we say no and can then suggest an alternative and, we believe, better course of action.

But often that’s a difficult conversation to have – as the person we’re dealing with will already have established a degree of attachment to their idea or request.

So to be effective we have to have a way of overcoming that attachment and getting our message over.

We need to be able to say no and offer alternatives without alienating our client or colleague and without causing frustration or angst.

And the solution is?

Well for me it has to start with establishing rapport and being seen and heard to understand the problem – you get what they’re trying to do and you need to show that.

That mean’s a combination of playing back to the person a summary of what you believe the problem is – for example “I understand you want us to do X, because that’s a possible way of dealing with the problem caused by Y” – and some more subtle demonstrations of emotional intelligence and empathy too.

If you don’t establish with the person you’re dealing with that you accurately understand the issue you’re dealing with, your push back will almost always end in conflict.

Once that bit’s done, the next stage is about being positive and constructive about the situation and your proposed alternative way forward.

The discussion has got to focus on the issue – as that’s where the lowest level of emotional engagement is in the conversation, although that will rarely be without any level of emotional attachment at all.

If the discussion strays into how we believe we should respond to the issue – whether the person’s preference for their solution or our preferred alternative – then things start getting more difficult. People don’t the sense of losing, being inferior or perceived as wrong – so sticking to the facts of the matter as objectively as possible is the best way of minimising the risk of this.

Throughout the discussion use whatever evidence you can to back your case. Keep to the facts and prepare beforehand so you have the facts. But don’t overwhelm with evidence in one go as that can backfire too.

Make sure you’ve thought through a range of alternatives, related them to the evidence and reached a professional judgement – ideally before, not during, the conversation.

If things get tricky one tactic I like is to try to broaden the discussion out by looking at analogous contexts. What’s happened elsewhere, in different sectors, different markets or at another time in your organisation? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used the analogy of a pub full of shouty people when discussing social media relations and responding.

Another way of wielding some influence is to identify other people that are trusted by the person you’re saying no to. While you may not have as much influence as you may wish for, influencing through others or saying no by proxy can sometimes be a useful tactic.

There are times when bringing in someone else to say no can help – for example asking your boss to join you for the conversation. But in the majority of situations I think this leads to a longer term undermining of credibility that’s best avoided. A tactic to be used rarely and selectively I think.

And I suppose the bottom line with saying no, is knowing when to stop saying no.

There’s no magic rule and it’s one of the hardest judgements as it means accepting a temporary loss of status in your relationship with the other person – although this can be managed depending on how you back down. And sometimes that willingness to flex can be repaid in later situations as well.

It’s easy to say yes – and many of us do it too often.

Yet it’s hard to say no. But where our instincts say no, we’ve got to equip ourselves with the tools to constructively say no and make that stick.

This article originally appeared on Simon Wakeman’s communications, marketing and public relations blog at


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