If saying ‘no’ in the workplace were easy, Harvard Business School probably wouldn’t offer a class on it. Yet there are plenty of people who habitually agree to things they don’t want to do. The cumulative effect of saying ‘yes’ when you’d rather say ‘no’ can be serious: People leave jobs, crack under stress, and get overlooked for promotions because they are seen as pushovers, says Jo Ellen Grzyb, a psychotherapist and Co-Founder and Director of the Impact Factory, a London-based global training center that helps executives to, among other things, just say no.
Ms. Grzyb’s approach to teaching executives to stand up for themselves is different from classical assertiveness training in that she doesn’t expect her students to undergo massive personal transformations all at once, she explains. “Twenty years ago, assertiveness training was all about telling people to stand their ground, to say ‘no,’ and to be a broken record,” she said. “It was all about changing who you are, and people’s response to that would be, ‘If I could do those things, I would!’,” she added.
In the approach she developed with her business partner Robin Chandler, an actor, Ms. Grzyb set out to teach people to make small, incremental changes that didn’t fly in the face of their personality. What began as a quest to address their own tendency to be too nice in their personal lives eventually became a curriculum for executives. Together, Ms. Grzyb and Mr. Chandler authored “The Nice Factor, The Art of Saying No,” published in 2008 by Fusion Press.
- Start from the tenet that you are who you are, and you shouldn’t pretend to be someone else. “The solution can’t be about faking it till you make it,” Ms. Grzyb said. “The techniques have to sit well inside you, or you won’t actually ever implement them.” While some coaches might prod you to work outside your comfort zone, Ms. Grzyb would tell you to slowly broaden that zone. “It’s hard to go from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ immediately. Aim to do it incrementally,” she said.
- To say ‘no,’ you don’t ever have to use the word ‘no.’ Instead, Ms. Grzyb suggests, you can offer an apology, coupled with an alternative offer. “For example, you could tell your boss, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t help you today, but I can do that tomorrow,’” she advises. This gets you out of the immediate burden you don’t want to take on, but still fulfills your need of wanting to be accommodating and helpful.
- When someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do, stop yourself from giving an immediate answer. Buy yourself time to compose your thoughts and to find a way out of it, Ms. Grzyb advises. She offers several ways of stalling your answer: One is to capitalize on your tendency to apologize. “People who are too nice often over-apologize for everything,” she says. “So roll with it and apologize and over-apologize while you think of a way to explain why you have to say ‘no’.” You can also try excusing yourself to the restroom, or saying you’ll call the person right back. “Give yourself a little time to respond well, rather than in knee-jerk way,” Ms. Grzyb said.
By learning to say ‘no’ when you need to, you are helping not just yourself, but also those around you, Ms. Grzyb said, because your built-up frustration from overlooking your own needs eventually starts spilling over. “It’s the ‘kick the cat’ situation where people start taking out their frustrations on innocent bystanders, be it their spouse, their child, or even the supermarket clerk,” she said. “When you’re not expressing your actual feelings to the person you’re having a potential conflict with, you often end up blowing up over something inconsequential in another part of your life.”