By Tanya Tarr
Gemma Evans on Unsplash
Sometimes the gentle art of saying “no” can be an important act of self-care. I walk through four points to consider when you want to diplomatically say “no” to someone.
A recent skit on Saturday Night Live with Aidy Bryant comedically shows us the struggle many women face in sorting out issues of gender and equal pay. In response to the extreme pay discrepancy on the set of a movie with Michelle Williams and Mark Walhberg, Bryant jokes about how women are taught to be accommodating and (with humor) apologizes as she points this out. To echo Bryant’s point, we’re told a mix of confusing advice. We’re told to be assertive but not so much that it’s aggressive. We want to draw a really clear boundary but we might apologize as we’re telling you to leave us alone. As we all try to sort out a more equal future, older social norms seem outdated and contradictory, and yet some of us still conform.
But what if I told you that you can be gracious while not caving to someone else’s demands or requests? It is possible to act diplomatically and still negotiate competitively, particularly if someone is asking you for a favor that clashes with your personal values.
Consider my friend, Jennifer (not her real name.) Jennifer called me the other day to ask for my advice in negotiating a thorny situation. A person in her professional network reached out to her and asked if she would be willing to give feedback about a leadership program he’s about to launch. Let’s call this person Bill (not his real name, either.) Bill mentions that he wants to target women clients, and asks Jennifer if she would consider writing him a testimonial that he could feature on his website.
At first, Jennifer was thrilled that Bill would ask for her advice and feedback. Jennifer is not close friends with Bill, but she admires a lot of his work. Jennifer and Bill are in a similar professional space, and Bill has landed deals with companies that Jennifer would love to work with some day. But as Jennifer starts reading the promotional material that Bill sent over, she felt the effects of flattery rapidly dampen. Though Bill wants to help women, he doesn’t mention any women leaders in the promotional material, aside from a mention of a sexual harassment case. The more Jennifer reads, the less she can see herself as a woman leader wanting to take Bill’s course. Frankly, she doesn’t know how she could write a testimonial for Bill that wouldn’t come across as phony.
So Jennifer calls me to get a second opinion. How can she navigate this situation? Bill is influential, and she doesn’t want to make him angry by declining to help him with the favor. She is concerned that if she says “no,” she might be shut off from future business with the companies Bill helps. Like many women, Jennifer sees the world through a lens of long-term relationships, including the professional relationships she has with someone in her network like Bill. A relationship-based perspective is key in being a collaborative negotiator, but it’s currently putting her in a quandary.
I reminded her of four steps that can guide her to saying “no” diplomatically:
- You don’t actually owe the requester anything.
- Remember why someone asked you for the favor.
- Reclaim your time.
- Refer them to someone else.
Let’s break down these steps into a few more details.
You don’t owe the requester anything.
It can be tough to say “no” to someone when you have a personality type like Jennifer. She is very accommodating, and she’d probably tell you she enjoys helping others, because she genuinely does. There isn’t anything wrong with that. The expectation that someone would be angry with her or retaliate against her for not giving away her help for free is what is problematic. Logically, it would not make sense for the requester to be angry with Jennifer. This is the subtle cultural tension that the Saturday Night Live skit points to. Women (and yes, some men) need to remember that it does not make sense for anger to be the response when you tell someone “no.” To echo Carrie Kerpen’s advice, give yourself permission for 2018 to be the year of “no.”
Remember why someone asked you for the favor.
They wouldn’t ask you if you weren’t an influencer. That’s power that Jennifer is overlooking. Bill values Jennifer’s opinion and sees her as an influencer of other women professionals, and that can be very flattering. It also confers authority, and I remind Jennifer that it is in her best interest to protect her reputation as an influencer. If she can’t write a testimonial with authenticity, she’s better off not doing it at all.
Reclaim your time.
I ask Jennifer an important question: does she really have time to help this person? Is this request priority over the other tasks she might have at hand? I can hear her groaning a little, as she starts to read me her to-do list. I suggest she use a phrase I would hear from people in the tech space, and tell Bill that she’s “just out of bandwidth” to write the testimonials properly. By saying “no,” Jennifer is acting competitively because she is protecting her most scarce resource: her time.
Refer them to someone else.
Pairing a decline with additional leads is a great tactic because it subtly communicates support. I suggest she offer two leads if she’s feeling generous. It can take the potential bite out of rejection because it communicates that she does want Bill to be successful, even if she can’t be the one to directly help him at this moment. This can also be a diplomatic way to fire a client.
Jennifer ended up sending Bill two other people to write testimonials, and Bill wrote back an email of thanks. She could have taken any number of other routes, but following these steps worked for her.
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