The Evolution of Yes; Learning to Say No

A simple, but powerful post – the evolution of “Yes” to a “No.”

People who know me closely, know that I like to help fix problems. I see solutions quickly and action them rapidly. Whether it is altruistic or some compulsion, is perhaps irrelevant. What is more relevant is that this leads me to say “Yes” reflexively when people ask for help. This trait has helped me to be valuable to my employers and has accelerated my development. It has meant that I have sacrificed my own priorities and direction to aid others, not necessarily a bad thing, as if we are working in a team, we should be aligned.

It has also meant that I have created a dependency and expectation to help, and as a consequence at times limiting the ownership and development of others. In some ways it’s selfish, because I can, I do. I help them, I develop my abilities, they do not. It poses an interesting dilemma, how to distinguish when to say “Yes” and when to say “No”. My advice is to see it as an evolution.

Phase 1 – Default to Yes

When starting out your career and life in general, try say “Yes” to everything you can. Make “Yes” your default response. This allows you to get exposure to a broad range of experiences – people, projects, life. This exposure enhances your potential and helps you develop Career Capital, a term Cal Newport coined. A term used to encapsulate those skills, experiences and additional work responsibilities you accumulate over your career which make you more valuable to an employer.

Phase 2 – Default to Yes if aligned, No if not

As you take on more responsibilities. Begin to only say “Yes” when it is aligned to your priorities. It is not always easy to know, so see Chapter 4 on Focus and Chapter 13 on Success to help. If it is not aligned to your priorities, then default to “No.” Saying “Yes” at this stage is likely to result in you saying “No” to something else that is more important. Realise that it is much easier to change your “No” to a “Yes” later on, than the other way around.

Phase 3 – Default to No

“if not ‘hell YES,’ then ‘no.'” – Derek Sivers

As you develop and taken on more responsibility, you may get to the point where “if not ‘hell YES,’ then ‘no.’” People live with many regrets, most of these start with a “Yes”. Time is your most finite and valuable resource, what we say “Yes” to is evidence of what we consider to be important, as this is what we are spending our most valuable resource on.

Say “No” to the time thieves.

Practical Actions:

One of the most difficult things to do is to transition from on “Yes” to “No”. It’s hard to say “No”. Here are some ideas to train people to expect a “No” and yourself to saying “No”:

  • Put a slight speed bump – When someone is asking a favour, give them a couple of extra steps to do, a small part of the task. It is amazing how many tasks are only important when it is easy for them to just ask you to do it. “I’m just finishing up with something, can you drop that in an e-mail so I can remember?” – “Happy to, could you sketch out on a piece of paper roughly what you are looking for and we can set up something to take it from there?”
  • Defer/delay – By saying you are in the middle of something important, can they come back in 20mins or next week. It is amazing how many people never come back.
  • Give a reason, even better a nothing reason – Robert Caldini in his book Influence shows how people are far more compliant when given a reason. People expect context.

In Caldini’s book he illustrates this point with an experiment they did. When trying to cut the queue for the photo-copier:

Can I go ahead of you, because I only have one page to copy” was as successful, as “Can I go ahead of you, because I need to make a copy.

Giving a real reason, could result in a follow up question. Perhaps try something like “I won’t be there, because I cannot attend.

  • Make a not to do list – Make a list of things that you won’t do, unless scheduled in. Then start changing your response, from “I can’t do” to “I don’t do”. The first is perceived more as a rejection of the individual, the second more of a rejecting the task. So, linking with the above “I don’t do queries on a Tuesday, can you come back tomorrow?” 
  • Train people on your e-mail responses – A specific one, but it has become so key. It is amazing how quickly in the workplace your behaviour can creates expectations.

“Bob, has not responded yet, but I know he usually takes a couple of days, so will wait.” Compared to “Steve, has not responded yet, he is usually pretty quick, even out of office hours, let me send him another one.”

If you respond out of office hours, people will expect you to. If you respond quickly, people will expect you to. I suggest batch your e-mail responses to set periods during the day that is convenient to you. Then to avoid the ping pong of you reply, they reply. If it takes more than one e-mail; follow up with a call. If you do not want a response until later. Schedule it to send later.

Do you have any examples of when you have needed to say “No”? – What tactic did you use to do it “politely”? – Share them in the comments below.

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