The Art Of Saying No

The Art Of Saying No

Communicating the negative successfully is key in sustaining your brand.

Someone once said to me, “ ‘No’ is a complete sentence.” That’s comforting when you realize you just can’t say yes to every request from your boss, your child or your community obligations. But in real life, we know the plainly worded “no” is a minefield in the workplace.

The lost art of listening

Elizabeth Otto, assistant professor of communication studies at St. Paul’s St. Catherine University, reminds us to offer your requester “the courtesy of genuinely listening to the request. Even if the other person is disappointed by your denial, the person will likely feel your relationship has been confirmed by careful consideration and good listening.” Listening also helps fine-tune your response; it’s classic audience analysis. When you truly listen and take in the request, how it’s being asked and by whom, you can thoughtfully frame your response in the way that person or people will best be able to hear it. Otto calls it the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them, not as you would have them do unto you.”

How you say it

Sometimes saying no has an impact not only on you but a group of people. You might be a middle manager who has colleagues at several levels to satisfy with your decision-making, or the one who has to champion an unpopular policy for the good of an organization. By thoughtfully delivering your “no” and using the Platinum Rule to convey your decision to interested parties, you sit in the best position to gain buy-in.

When people have a difficult time accepting the no, it’s because they feel you didn’t have their best interest in mind. “No is the most important discipline,” advises Dave Horsager, a business strategist who consults on building trust. “The people I trust are the ones I believe will say no when necessary—no to gossip, no to fudging on character when people are not watching.”

How you say no also plays out visually. “If you are face-to-face, strive to make good eye contact and keep your body turned toward the person with whom you are speaking, with your arms at your sides. This nonverbal behavior conveys receptiveness and attention,” says Otto.

What’s gender got to do with it?

“Scholarship in communication studies suggests saying no is more difficult for feminine communicators than for masculine communicators,” says Otto. Women tend to be more in tune to impact. “When a feminine communicator says no to a friend or colleague, her perception is often that she is risking damage to the relationship and diminishing her connection to that person.”

When it comes to your brand, though, a no is often more important than a yes. This holds true for men and women. Often a hesitation to say no can waste time and money. Clients and vendors who are able to give me the facts straight definitely help me grow trusting relationships with them.

It’s a trust thing

When you say yes to something, you are naturally saying no to something else, advises Horsager. “There are two types of no that are important for me,” he says. “The first is saying no to the good so I have room for the great.”

When you think about growing your brand, your intention can help you edit which direction to go and how to get there. Horsager’s advice can help you say yes to quality opportunities and no to the rest. Any time you can hook your response to a bigger goal or vision about what your brand stands for, saying no doesn’t have to be scary.

Guilt is a wasted emotion. Horsager’s second important no covers certain habits. “No is critical and maybe even more important than yes, because you cannot say yes to the right things if you have not first said no to the wrong things.” Horsager used his own advice when he lost 50 pounds in five and a half months. He changed his eating and drinking habits by saying no and yes at the appropriate times.

The inner narrative

Calm and thoughtful noes will help you make space for the brilliant opportunities for yes in the months ahead. As long as you steer clear of a negative internal narrative about having to say no and keep a positive outlook for the possibility of more great yeses, your ability to say no will become a valuable tool for boosting your presence and growing your personal brand.

Roshini Rajkumar is a personal brand strategist and presence engineer. She is host of News and Views with Roshini Rajkumar on WCCO Radio and author of Communicate That! For additional communication tips, visit Connect with Roshini at