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4 Ways to Say No Without Sounding Like a Jerk

If you know you need to say no more in order to focus but struggle to do so, this advice from a top Wharton professor is for you.
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You no doubt know that focus is key to doing your job well. Common sense and about 8,000 blog posts a year remind entrepreneurs and others that limiting your commitments is the only route to excellence (and continued sanity). But let me guess, you still struggle to take control of your schedule.

Why is that?

The sometimes hidden side of all this focus advice is that actually implementing it means saying no to lots and lots of well-intentioned people. If you’re a nice person, it’s no surprise you struggle to disappoint others or withhold your help. Know, at least, that you’re not alone. Many business leaders confess to struggling to say no, as did Wharton professor and author Adam Grant recently in a recent LinkedIn post.

The useful post aims to help those of us who weren’t born with a Steve Jobs-style ruthless streak learn to say no without feeling like complete jerks or damaging relationships and offers specific tactics and phrasing to use, including:

The Deferral

You’ve probably already tried this one yourself. You say something like: "I’m swamped right now, but feel free to follow up." Grant too has tried this technique and notes that it has advantages and disadvantages. Kicking the can down the road "provided clues about who cared the most about connecting with me. I liked prioritizing the people who were passionate and persistent,” he writes, but adds "I also unwittingly rewarded the stalkers and the takers-;people so aggressive and single-minded that they would do whatever it took to get what they wanted." So be aware of the downsides, but this is still an important tactic to have in your arsenal.

The Referral

For this one your say something along the lines of: "I’m not qualified to do what you’re asking, but here’s something else." If people repeatedly come to you with requests in areas where you don’t feel adequately qualified to help, having a few stock resources, such as books or articles, to point them to can ease the pain of saying no, Grant suggests. "These referrals allowed me to avoid saying no outright and to engage equally with everyone in a way that protected my time," he writes.

The Batch

This one isn’t so much a way of saying no, as a way of squeezing a bunch of yeses into a lot less time. You say: "Others have posed the same question, so let’s chat together." Grant tells the story of how a chat with a former student sparked the idea for this technique: "Ryan is a military veteran who transitioned into business, and I was stunned to learn that he schedules upwards of 100 calls per month with fellow veterans pursuing that path. It seemed inefficient to take those calls individually when he was providing similar information to each person, so I suggested inviting them in small groups to weekly Google Hangouts. I ended up following my own advice, and found that it helped people create a community around common interests."

The Relational Account

Grant’s final suggestion is to fall back on basic human decency and respond, "If I helped you, I'd be letting others down." The benefit of this approach is it mitigates the risk of appearing cold and uncaring when you say no. "Studies by Hannah Riley Bowles and Linda Babcock reveal that when we offer relational accounts for going against the norm, we’re viewed more favorably, as we preserve our image as giving and caring," Grant writes, before giving examples of how he puts this insight into practice. For mentoring requests, for example, he replies that his students are his first priority and taking on additional mentoring would mean shortchanging them. For speaking requests, he tells those making that offer that "my wife and I have set a limit for speaking engagements, and at this point, I’m maxed out."

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

 

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Mar 19, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

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.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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