Saying “no” is hard, even if it’s to a close friend. In a professional environment, however, it can be important and often far more difficult. So how do you soften the blow of a straight “no” answer? Say yes… and offer something more!
The Hard Way
The problem with saying “no” is that it often shuts down a conversation. This can leave a client or boss feeling defensive, that their ideas don’t matter, or, worse yet, that they’ve hired someone who can’t listen or be respectful. Nobody wants to lose a client or be fired, so we often won’t say “no” for this very reason.
Simply disagreeing or refusing also doesn't provide any extra value to the conversation. As a consultant or employee, it's often our job to provide solutions and offer an outside perspective; a flat “no” doesn’t give us an opportunity to do either.
Yet there are times when “no” really is the best answer. It can take some bravery to say, but it can also be an opportunity to build trust by offering up guidance, showing the other person that you genuinely understand a problem and its implications. These implications can be as straightforward as avoiding a costly design decision or something more nuanced like avoiding team burnout, or letting meaningful quality suffer.
Most of the time, however, we quickly consider all the things that could go wrong if we say “no” and end up just saying “yes” instead.
The Easy Way
In a perfect world, we would be able to say “yes” to every single client demand, every project would complete under budget in half the time and we could all ride unicorns to work in the morning. But the world is far from perfect and blindly saying “yes” can land us in some serious trouble.
In The Clean Coder, Uncle Bob talks about how “yes” constitutes a significant commitment; that when you say it, you mean it. Time is limited and it's not always possible to fit everything in, but at the same time, over-promising and under-delivering is unprofessional. There really is nothing worse than taking on too much work only to deliver a low quality product.
We all have our reasons to say “yes.” The most obvious one is to avoid conflict, as most of us are conditioned to avoid it in the first place. But you may just be trying to prove your value or technical prowess. Or, perhaps, you just want to to be helpful. These are all poor reasons to just say “yes” and may just undermine your productivity and the overall health of the project.
So are you damned if you do, damned if you don’t? Not exactly. There are plenty of ways to say “no” without putting you, your client or your boss in an uncomfortable position.
Reframing your response as something like “yes, and…” lets you to respectfully disagree while still opening the floor for conversation and allowing your insight into the problem to be heard. It has the same effect as saying “no” in that it communicates that you are listening and actively engaging in the issue, but doesn’t come off as antagonistic. This makes it easier for a client to listen to your ideas (or, better yet, build on them) without feeling like they’ve been stepped over.
Saying “yes, and…” is, in fact, an improv technique. In Tina Fey’s Bossypants, she talks about how vital it is for a successful improv act:
“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. [...] The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. [...] To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile. [...] The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. [...] In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.”
These rules apply to client conversations; you could very easily swap out “improvisation” for “meetings.” You are, after all, often generating ideas or helping steer the discussion on-the-fly during a meeting. Take this moment of collaboration as a chance to provide value.
Consider a meeting with the client at a music talent agency. The agent asks, “Can we have a image slider on the homepage with all of our two hundred artists?” You could just respond with a “no”, but where would that leave the conversation? Now consider responding with, “Yes, and rather than loading all two hundred artists at once we can pick five random ones so a new artist appears on the page every time someone loads it.”
Easy, right? Answering in this way allows for collaboration and reflection on the original idea. In this case, we directed the conversation from something potentially negative to an exciting new feature. But, imagine if you had said “no”; you might have had to build a poor quality feature or even upset the client.
Granted, it doesn’t always go this smoothly. The truth is that it sometimes doesn’t matter what you say; a boss or client may shut you down regardless. Just do your best to respectfully raise your concerns and try to compromise where you can. The practice will do wonders for your communication skills.
Thinking about conversations in this way has helped me in the workplace by allowing me to be opinionated and honest while still respectful. It takes practice to improvise and respond well on-the-spot, but it’s something that you will get better at over time.
So before you respond to that next pressing question from a boss/client/colleague, think about the consequences of the way in which you approach your answer. It really can mean the difference between a productive conversation and digging yourself or your team into a hole.