How To: Stop “No” From Being a 4-Letter Word


Not too long ago, a colleague jokingly compared me to a consigliere. (Think Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”).

He said he didn’t know how I got any work done, as people wander in and out of my office to speak to me about such things as a project, a potential sales client or general advice. The reality is that there are some days that I don’t get to check off a single thing on my personal To-Do List. Luckily, those days have become fewer and fewer in the past 18 months.

So how did I go from rarely completing my personal work to usually getting it done?

I started using the word No.

Despite its shortness, no really is a powerful word.

Parents learned its power eons ago. Politicians tactfully use its derivative Nay to make their points during votes. Even Marlon Brando’s iconic character Vito Corleone understood its power and symbolically used it to encourage a movie producer to give his godson a role in a movie. (Remember the stallion’s head in the bed? That was a less than subtle way to say No.)

Unfortunately for me, it has not always been easy to tell others no. I felt using the word was the equivalent of cursing at people, telling them they were not worth my time. Amanda Neville wrote that she feared letting others down, but realized that by saying yes all the time that she was doing harm to them and her business. She is right.

The reality is that everyone needs to use No from time to time: to make a point, to stay true to their ethics or to simply get some work done that is critical to corporate well-being.

Here is what I have learned from saying No to others during the last year.

1. People figure out a way to get their work done: It feels good to have people asking your opinion or seeking you out to strategize or plan what to do for a marketing program or a client deliverable. That said, if you have 10 or mos such meetings in a day for 15 minutes or more, you already have lost 2 1/2 hours of productive time for your own projects.

Work with people and give them direction, but don’t enable them to come and ask about mundane tasks or things that they can handle. Let them figure it out, make mistakes, accomplish important tasks, etc. and they will grow as colleagues and ultimately will be more valuable to you and your teams.

2. People value my time more: Now, when someone comes to my office, I expect that there is something important that needs my attention. I value employees who can get their work done and proactively find solutions.

By telling people that I don’t have time to meet every time they drop by, I believe they have a better appreciation for the work that I MUST get done on a given day.

3. People discuss solutions and don’t harp on perceived problems: Sometimes ideas that people have about how to serve a client or market ideas will not work. A simple no can stop what was planned, get people to rethink their approach and oftentimes a better solution is devised.

4. My work gets done: I failed to realize that all those times I dropped what I was doing to help others was not always best for the company. I didn’t put a value on my time so why should others? Then I read this article from the Time Management Ninja. It puts some things in perspective. By saying no, I began to focus on my To-Do lists and to complete projects critical to the company’s strategic mission.

5. I am not Vito Corleone and will not ask everyone for a favor at some time: Saying no empowers you not to feel like you owe others and conversely that they don’t owe you either.

To me, this sets up a greater atmosphere of accountability and reliability among colleagues, as opposed to a system of favors and keeping track of who owes whom. That is not a To Do List that I intend to keep.

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