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“The difference between successful people and very successful people is very successful people say NO to almost everything”

In this guest article, executive coach and speaker Don Khouri explains how learning to say no can bring new levels of success and spells out three elegant ways to say no.

The research is clear: We don’t like to say NO.

We associate more pain with saying no today than the potential pain of having too much to do later. We think we can do more than we actually can in the time allotted, a belief known as the planning fallacy. It is one of the big reasons we end up with more on our plate than we can handle.

In When to Say Yes: The 5 Steps to Protect Your Time, I give you a simple five-step process for identifying quality requests for your time that will lead you to a YES. For those times when the process yields a NO answer, it is helpful to know how to say NO.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was right about drugs when she advised us to “Just say NO”. If you want to alienate those around you, just saying NO will surely do it. I advocate that “NO” is not a complete sentence. Think about it: A co-worker or even your boss asks you to take on an important project.

“Bill, we could really use your help on this project.” NO.
“Monica, could you take this off my plate”. NO.
“Terry, can you cover for me in the meeting.” NO.

Bridges burnt. Relationships damaged.

Here are three elegant ways to respond and keep those critical relationships healthy:

1. The Not Now, Maybe Later Approach

Recently, I was asked to join a team that trains other executive coaches. It was a well-thought-out request, and it aligned with much of what I love to do. In the end, though, I couldn’t reprioritize anything else on my list, so I replied, “I would love to do it, but right now I am focused on other priorities. Could you check back with me in six months?”

2. The I Know a Great Person for That Approach

One time, I was asked to lead a volunteer committee that played well to my strengths. The time commitment and short window made it virtually impossible to accept, so I replied, “I can’t take this on right now because of the time commitment required. I bet we can come up with someone else who’s a great fit.” We came up with someone who was tangentially involved, and this opportunity got this person even more involved in the community. Win/win! Bridge built!

3. The Priority List Approach

This one works when a close colleague or your boss requests something. The most effective leaders who worked for me when I led global software development teams were the ones who responded to one of my requests to take on a new project with something like, “I’d be happy to Don. Can you help me figure out where that fits on my priority list?” We would review the list together and agree where it fit, if at all.

Use these three options to say NO in a way that is respectful, fosters the relationship, and most importantly, protects your time.