How to say no?

March 29, 2017

Which are the major decisions you took in your professional life that you feel happy about? – This was the question someone asked me recently.

With a bit of reflection, I could share a decision I had once made. I had said ‘no’ to a very senior officer. Instead of heeding to his demand to offer a short-term contract to an individual, I explained the process that I would follow as per rules. He was not too happy to hear the response. A “No” — no matter how polite and logical it is — does not go well with people who are used to listening to “yes”. It did affect my relationship with his department, which incidentally was key to us. Instead of agreeing to a high-cost short-term arrangement to help an individual, I thought through the process and took the decision to introduce a change in the system, which would be beneficial to the programme in the long run. This worked well; and is still working.

At times, all of us feel pressurized to comply with a request that we are not comfortable with. The problem is greater if it comes from a senior person. Doing something unethical, illegal or simply against our values is one of the most challenging dilemmas in our career.

How does one say “no” in such situations? Here are a few ideas:

Buy time, if possible: It helps to buy time to think over the issue, weigh the various pros and cons and then respond. “I will think over it and get back to you” is a good strategy. But remember to get back within the time you promised. Pressure on you will increase day by day, if you don’t respond; and this will further reduce your confidence to say no.

Ask yourself if you have strong reasons to say “no”: Once you have thought over the issue well, then frame your response, based on facts, logic, correctness of procedures, etc. This way you will be able to justify your answer. It helps to consult some trust-worthy friends and colleagues. You may receive some good advice.

How do you say “no” is the key: Once you have established why are you saying no, you need to present it in a way that the recipient is compelled to acknowledge. Remember, the initial reaction is not going to be good. Be ready for all kind of reactions, outbursts, unnecessary questioning, even yelling etc. Hold on to your temperament. Your attitude, your tone of voice, your confidence all play a role. Remember, if you are right then you have the edge. The recipient would, sooner or later, appreciate the merit of your response.

Having said this, I must add that these situations are a test of our integrity. One has to be ready to make personal sacrifices if one wants to go this road. Lord Milner puts it so well, “If we believe a thing to be bad, and if we have a right to prevent it, it is our duty to try to prevent it and damn the consequences.”