Emilia D’Anzica, Managing Partner, Growth Molecules
In his book The Art of Saying NO, Damon Zahariades writes that saying no is one of the most powerful skills you can develop as a business leader. So then why is it so hard to put into action? Vanessa Bohns, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, explains that our need to connect with others is instinctive, you could even say primal. We know that we need each other to thrive in life and the idea of a disapproving tribe can be a terrifying prospect.
I personally feel relief in knowing that there’s an instinctive fear behind saying no. I was inspired to write this guide based on what I’ve learned while offering management consulting services and teaching customer metrics to MBA students. I want to help dig into questions like what else makes it hard to say no, and how can we ultimately overcome this fear in order to become stronger business leaders?
We grow up with stories. These stories are often about the consequences of speaking up and taking a stand for what we want. Often, the story ends with losing a friend or a job. Here are some reasons we might hold back from asserting ourselves and speaking our no:
• We don’t want to be seen as hard to work with.
• We want to make others happy.
• We are taught to please others.
• We are taught it’s not polite to reject an invitation.
• We believe others will judge us.
We are wired to have a negativity bias. In the book he co-authored, The Power of Bad, Roy Baumeister explains that we have a tendency to focus more on the negative events that happen in life instead of the positive ones. This is when we focus more attention on what is wrong or can go wrong. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective but not as much in our modern-day world.
Examples of this are when we expect there to be heavy traffic, bad weather or to be rejected when we say no to someone’s request. The mind can have a propensity to remember the negative things that happen more than the positive things, making it that much harder to say no when necessary.
The good news is that we can shift this perspective. Here are a few tips I’ve found on how to have more confidence with saying no:
Normalize no. Make it an everyday part of life and just as normal as saying yes. This makes it less scary, unfamiliar or overwhelming.
Realize people want to hear the truth. Have you ever had someone say yes to you only to find out later they really wanted to say no? Likely, it felt pretty horrible. Knowing that, in general, people want the truth, helps to see no as a win for both parties.
It helps you move on to the next thing. Often what we dread happening never really happens. So if we can quickly get to the point and have a clear no, everyone involved can have the clarity to move on to something else. Like the truth, people appreciate clarity. Hearing no gives them that clarity so they can find their yes somewhere else or open a conversation about what else may be possible.
Practice being honest with yourself. A big reason behind we aren’t always completely honest with someone is that we aren’t being honest with ourselves. So how can we be transparent when we aren’t even honest with ourselves? It makes a situation where we need to say no even harder.
Let’s say you have way too many meetings on your calendar and find it hard to get your priorities done each week. Now, your colleague wants to add a weekly meeting to your calendar and you’re finding it hard to say no. Perhaps you’ve already had boundary-creep with other meetings that you could be skipping. Have you acknowledged that you are feeling overwhelmed and perhaps haven’t been holding good boundaries at work?
In my career, the hardest nos have been the ones where I have had to say it to my boss. Initially, it was out of fear. But as I researched how to say no, I learned the reasoning behind the fear; I was afraid of losing my job and being seen as incompetent. Only through writing down my fears, asking myself if the fears were valid and practicing how to say no with confidence and a clear explanation did the action become easier. Today, saying no is no longer a terrifying experience. It is one I can say with a positive tone, not with a defensive one. Afterward, it feels so good to have been honest with myself and the other person.
What people don’t often talk about is what we have to gain by saying no. What if that became our pillar of strength instead? I recommend you seek out a way to be honest with yourself and start landing your nos within the business world with confidence.