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How Super Successful People Learn to Say 'No'

High achievers accomplish a lot because they know where to focus their attention. So if you want to succeed, get good at turning people down.
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When we think of the highly successful, we generally think of all the things they do--build great companies, design incredible products, close impressive customers, etc.--but the simple truth is that behind every impressive accomplishment stands a long list of things they didn't do.

None of us has infinite time, and high achievers learn early (if sometimes painfully) that getting important things done means saying no … a lot. Take it from Onboardly co-founder Rene Warren, who once reflected on how she learned this important lesson about entrepreneurship: "It took me years to finally start saying no to things that would take me away from what really needed my attention. Time is the most valuable thing you have. Make sure you invest it wisely."

But knowing you need to say no is only half the battle. The best of the best learn to say no nicely, without burning bridges, and with a good degree of intentionality and consideration. This advanced level of turning down opportunities was covered on LinkedIn recently by Brian de Haaff, co-founder and CEO of Aha! In his post, he breaks down the saying-no skills of the highly successful into four easy-to-replicate steps.

1. Really listen.

"If someone asks you to do something or for something, you should assume that it is important to them for one reason or another. They likely would not ask you otherwise. It's your responsibility to get to the heart of the request and why it matters. Working towards understanding ensures that you will clearly see what the person making the request sees and you will be able to gauge how important it is to apply energy against it," de Haaff writes.

This assumedly means no half-distracted deleting of emails, mindless head-nodding at an imploring employee, or distracted "yes, dears" for your better half. You might say no, but pay the people asking you for things the courtesy of really listening to their requests.

2. Know priorities.

Once you've heard the request, you have to respond intelligently. In order to do this, you need to go into the whole situation armed with a good sense of what you're trying to accomplish in your life at the moment. Then you can gauge if saying yes will further or inhibit those goals.

De Haaff calls this approach goal first. "A 'goal first' approach is about defining your vision. Because if you do not have a vision, it will be difficult to understand what major requests are aligned with your goals and your direction and need your attention longer term," he explains.

3. Be fast and firm.

This one is a no brainer--don't waste their time or yours. "You should respond to requests quickly as they come in. That's because you cannot afford to keep revisiting them and the person making the request does not want to wait," he says, but adds: "There is no point in being hasty but wrong. It is absolutely OK to acknowledge that the request was received and that you will get back to the person shortly."

4. Tell them why.

In order to maintain relationships despite having to say no, make clear to those doing the asking what the rationale for your decision was. "Allow someone to peak inside and understand why you responded the way you did rather than just hearing your response. Explaining the 'why' makes the 'what' simple to digest. You need to be more than just nice because being nice alone does not help someone see your perspective. This is especially important when saying 'No,'" de Haaff advises. It's a strategy that's also endorsed by Wharton professor Adam Grant.

And that's it--there's nothing complicated about de Haaff's four-step system. Although simplicity makes this approach easy to put into action, it doesn't make it any less powerful.

Do you struggle to say no as often as you should?

Last updated: Aug 21, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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