The Fine Art of Saying No

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Saying no isn't easy, but it can be the right thing to do.

Turning someone down isn’t easy, even when you know saying no is the right thing to do. The late and great David Bowie didn’t have that problem. Much like his music, his rejections also displayed a unique sense of style.

A while back, Coldplay approached Bowie for collaboration on a track. On paper, the musical partnership made a lot of sense. At the time, Coldplay was arguably the most profitable British band of the generation, while Bowie’s work from previous decades broke boundaries. Bowie has also never been averse to collaboration, as some of his best-known songs were partnerships with Queen, Mick Jagger and other legendary performers.

Saying yes would have meant easy money and lots of publicity. The biggest musical acts from different generations teaming up for a track is an easy sell. Bowie, however, rejected the offer outright. “It’s not a very good song, is it?” Bowie told the band. Ouch.

The rejection might sound harsh, but Coldplay fully understood Bowie’s decision. “He was very discerning – he wouldn’t just put his name to anything,” said Coldplay drummer Will Champion. “I’ll give him credit for that!” Indeed, Bowie has turned down a number of collaborations with high-profile artists.

Sadly, we’re not David Bowie and we can’t get away with blunt, honest rejections. Even a soft no is enough to hurt someone’s feelings and worsen a relationship. We even feel it can damage our professional reputation at work. That’s why saying yes comes so easily even when it’s not in our best interests.

The benefits to saying no, however, can outweigh the negatives.

  • More time and energy to focus on important tasks
  • Doing a mediocre job can damage your reputation, as David Bowie was keenly aware of. Saying no can prevent subpar work from coming out with your name on it
  • Taking on too much work is stressful. Turning down certain assignments helps keep morale and productivity up
  • Saying no, at least voicing concerns, helps bring focus to your duties

Rejecting a request in the workplace requires a delicate touch. Here’s how to do it in a way that won’t bruise egos or hurt feelings.

Don’t Be Too Quick

When a co-worker, manager or anyone else comes up to you and makes a request, the natural reaction is a knee-jerk yes or no answer. Decisiveness is a valuable trait, but it isn’t helpful in this situation.

Instead, you need to think through the request. Tell the person you’ll get back to them. Assess what’s requested of you in the meantime. Is it a priority? Is there a tangible benefit? Do you even have the time to get it done right? Asking these questions will help you articulate your response.

Provide a Reason

Now that you’ve assessed the request in full, you can provide your rejection. The best way to do so is to emphasise a valid reason why you can’t help. The reason can be as simple as not having the time due to other deadlines or saying that you aren’t a good fit for the project.

Providing a valid reason in a friendly yet honest way is inoffensive and won’t foster any ill will. Just be upfront and truthful.

Offer Something Else

Maybe a proposed partnership is a bad fit. Or the task you’ve been asked about isn’t relevant to your work at hand. No matter the reason, it’s beneficial to offer something else along with your rejection. Offering an alternative—even if it comes with a firm no—softens the blow and still helps the person who approached you.

For example, you can offer the name of someone who would be better suited for the partnership. Or you can offer to take a look at the finished report even though you don’t have time to draft it. This generates some good will without taking up as much time or resources.

Practice Makes Perfect

Tone is always important when it comes to declining someone. A misplaced word or a flippant remark can inflict a lot of unintended damage. Like most things in life, practice can help greatly.

Most people don’t take rejection too well, so actually saying no in private and out loud is a big help. Doing so helps you practice not only the content of your sentences but the tone in which you speak it. The first few practice rejections can sound rough once you actually hear yourself say it. Honing the rejection through practice.

Don’t Always Say No

While turning down a request can be absolutely beneficial at times, it’s important to pick and choose your battles. Butting heads with management is never a wise idea, and constantly saying no can give you a bad reputation. David Bowie can get away with it—we definitely can’t.

Saying no to a boss is a lot different than saying no to a coworker. With that in mind, be smart about when you put your foot down and say “no.” Doing it sparingly can make a huge impact on your productivity. Saying it too much can hold back your career.

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