The art of saying “No”

June 20, 2021 | Reading time 3 minutes

One of the most underrated skills is the ability to say no.

About ten years ago, I started saying no to unrealistic expectations or other things that I didn’t feel comfortable with. I came to that step after experiencing stress in several projects due to expectations that weren’t realistic. These were deadlines as well as to the product or service itself. Stress that was unnecessary for both me and the client. All I should have done was being clearer upfront and say no.

In the past ten years I have gradually started to say no more consciously. This has led to two important gains:

1) I don’t get burned out (and neither does my team)
By saying no, I avoid agreeing to work and deadlines that I can’t meet. And by me, I also mean the team I work with. I no longer fight uphill battles, but am in control of my projects. That means I don’t lose energy to stress, and I can focus on the actual work. This increased the quality of my work, and it’s more fun.

2) Customers know what to expect
When you agree to unrealistic expectations, you know upfront that there’ll be a bad news conversation with the client. You either don’t meet the deadline or don’t meet requirements. Or worse: both. Isn’t it strange that people take it for granted that each project has a moment where the customer and supplier clash? It’s unnecessary. Be frank. It makes life easier. You don’t get the best results by telling me what they want to hear. You get it by meeting and exceeding expectations.

How do you say no?

The trick is explaining why you say no, so that the other person becomes part of the reason or problem.

Let’s say you are running a project for implementing software. There are five features and each feature takes a week of work. Your planning is that you finish the project in five weeks. Now the customer comes to you and says they want a deadline in four weeks. The conversation can be like this:

  • You: we can finish the project in five weeks.
  • Customer: Okay, but we want it in four weeks.
  • You: That’s not possible. We have five items and each item takes a week. So, it’s either five weeks or four weeks. In case of the latter, you have to choose which item will not be part of the release.
  • Customer: I hear you, but we want all items in four weeks. Can’t you make that possible?
  • You: No, not with the quality that we both want.

You see what’s happening here? The customer tries to trick me in meeting with his demands. Instead of doing so, I explain why that’s not possible and give him a choice.

Not everyone will like this approach, but in the end it works better for both parties.

Better projects, and life in general, start with being honest and saying no.