The last few weeks I’ve taught a number of courses on time and priority management for busy professionals.  One topic that often comes up is the matter of saying no at the office.  I often wonder if it’s because I’m based in the South, where we place a special emphasis on “being nice” and “sugar coating” things.  And yet it comes up over and over again no matter what part of the US or world I’m working in.  Questions like:

  • How do I say no to a colleague who needs help, especially one that I like? 
  • Or what about a stakeholder who always thinks their deliverable is the most important and is constantly trying to add extra tasks to my already full plate?

Our mindset around saying no is Key

I often hear concerns about guilt and what will other people think about me if I don’t help them.  There are a lot of folks that inadvertently fall into the approval seeking trap.  Many of us never develop the strong boundaries in childhood that we need to get us through life, and it rears its ugly head as we get older.  And it really is a trap.  When you’re stuck in it, you often experience what I call the “Plight of the Martyr,” where you’re constantly solving problems that are urgent for others but ultimately not important to you.  And your key priorities fall to the wayside as a result.  Think about that continuous improvement project that you’re constantly putting on the back burner.  Or perhaps you’re wanting to get back in shape and find yourself sitting at your desk toiling away on an urgent deliverable for someone else and decide to skip that yoga class yet again. 

What’s interesting is that for some people (myself now included) saying no is not super difficult.  When I ask folks who have an easier time why that is the case, they often explain that they value their time.  They realize their deliverables and priorities are just as important as others.  They also recognize that taking the monkey constantly off another person’s back isn’t a great way for them to learn.  That is itself is an interesting reframe, because we often believe we are helping but in many instances, we could be hindering the growth and development of the person asking the favor.

Ultimately it comes down to judgement.  We do live in a society where reciprocity is valued, and it might make sense to say yes to a request when you recognize you might need a favor down the line.  However, if you decide that saying no is the right option, then consider the following technique as a viable option that could save you heaps of valuable time.

Use the AIM Framework to say no

A – Acknowledge the request.  “I can really tell you’re in a bind and I know how important this report is to you and your team.”  When we acknowledge we are in effect repeating back that we’ve heard and demonstrate that we’ve understood the request.  Don’t skip this part, as it’s important the other person feels that you’re listening and empathetic to their situation.

I – Investigate other options.  This is when you put on your coaching hat.  And rather than take the monkey off their back and offer to do it for them, you ask coaching questions like, “What have you tried so far?  Who else has had this issue?  What’s the outcome you’re ultimately aiming for?  What concerns you most about that approach?”  The key is to keep asking questions from a coaching perspective to help them think it through, without you jumping in to do it for them.

M – Make it clear what you can do.  “So I can make an introduction to Kelly, who I know has had a similar issue.  She may be able to help.”  Or “I can send you a link to some information I’ve got on that topic, have a look and see what you might find useful.”  Or “I’m really swamped at the moment, I can give you 15 minutes over lunch tomorrow to bounce some ideas off me, but that’s all the time I have.”

Coaching Questions for Thought

  • Where in your life are you currently overcommitted to someone else’s priorities?  Where in life are you not saying no when you know it would benefit you?
  • Who are you seeking approval from currently?  What would it look like if you stopped?
  • How might you utilized the AIM framework to free up your valuable time and empower them to do it themselves?

Shelley Pernot is a leadership and career coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their strengths and talents and find a career that utilizes them.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!

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