Learn to say no even if your job is to say yes
WHEN YOUR JOB IS to help other people with their IT needs and be responsive to
your company's users, it sometimes can feel like you can't turn down user requests. But
Odette Pollar, founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based training company Time Management
Systems, says saying no can be as important a part of your job as saying yes. She
explains why it's crucial to say no to some requests -- and offers tips on how to do it
without damaging relationships.
Why is it important to say no sometimes?
Every time you say yes to a new item, you say no to your own priorities or to a
previous commitment to which you had said yes. What often happens is that people make
all these commitments and then there's a new opportunity and they say yes again.
A current yes often means that you must now say no to a prior yes. Then you're
trapped. You can become known as somebody who doesn't keep their word or is always
How can you say no if your job is to help people?
In the customer service field, you don't want to say no. You want to be helpful.
The challenge is: You have to balance responsiveness with work generation. If you say
yes to everything, it means you never have any time to do the work that these people
are calling about. It's not that you're never available or that you're always
available -- those are extremes. You have to be flexible.
If you have a new request and a prior commitment, how do you decide which one
If it's not just your schedule, then it's a priority decision or a mission
decision. The mission of your department or division is to do X, and the priority that
wins is one that's closest to meeting your goal.
Sometimes it's based on relationships. You can sometimes put off a longtime client
with whom you have built up points. Just be cautious that you don't injure the long-
If you weigh someone's new request against the project you're already working
on and realize you can't say yes to the new request, how do you say no?
There's a four-step process for saying no:
1. Listen to the request.
2. Say no immediately. One problem with not saying no immediately is if you start
justifying, then you get into this 45-minute conversation when you could have done the
thing in 20 minutes.
3. Give a reason so that you don't sound hostile or unfriendly: "I have a prior
commitment." Don't give a long, convoluted justification where people can start arguing
with you. Make it clear that the no is to the request, that it's not personal. If
saying you have a prior commitment isn't good enough, you can always say, "I won't be
able to do that because I've already made three other commitments for that time. If I
take yours, then I won't be able to meet my other commitments I made earlier. That puts
me in a very difficult position." Then stop talking. It pulls in their sympathy and
4. Offer some help or alternatives. Give them the name of somebody else. Do part of
the request. Give them suggestions. You're trying to assist them -- it's just that you
can't do the entire request as it was asked.
What do you say when you decide that you need to honor the new request and go back
on a prior commitment?
When you do have to change your commitment, tell them what you will do in the
future to prevent this problem so people will know you're noot only a firefighter but
also a planner:
1. Here is what happened.
2. Here is when I can get it to you.
3. This is what I'm going to do to make sure this doesn't happen again.
How can you keep from getting into situations where you can't help people solve
Getting your calendar and schedule under control is not just a matter of surviving
a current crisis.
If your job is to handle emergencies, work that is more routine has to be scheduled
earlier. Complete deadlines sooner, those that you have control over, so that they're
out of the way. Then when you do get the emergency, it's not so disruptive. Build in
more open time, more than you think you need. It will probably get filled in.
You can also turn casual requests from people into work for them. Ask them to
remind you or drop you a note about it, or to send a note to the help desk. A lot of