Tools for No … I Choose To

(from my soon-to-be-published book, Just One Step: The Journey to Your Unstoppable You)

Last week I wrote again about some tools to help you improve and accelerate your “no” muscle. These tools don’t eliminate the various challenges to the no, but they help you navigate a world where you’re being constantly called upon for a resounding yes. The four essential “no” tools are: 

  1. The Pause
  2. Keep it clear and simple (and without three specific words)
  3. I choose to …
  4. Not now

Last week I wrote about the keep it clear and simple tool, and this week we’ll explore the third tool – I choose to.

In contrast to last week’s phrases to avoid, the “I choose to” communication tool is simple, direct, honest and empowering. It’s empowering because it’s based upon a universal truth – the truth that we always have choices. They may be difficult and even seemingly impossible choices, but we always have choices, and owning your choices is something that people can and will respect (especially askers).

In simplest terms, the “I choose to” is the replacement for the can’t. While can’t is almost always not really true and more a matter of choices and priorities, the “I choose to” is clear, direct and honest. Let’s look at some typical examples to make this point:

Can’t:      I can’t get involved with the team’s campaign because I have a lot going on at work right now.

I Choose: I’m choosing not to get involved with the team’s campaign because of my current work commitments.

Can’t:      I can’t get involved with the team’s campaign because I have a lot going on at home.

I Choose: I’m choosing not to get involved with the team’s campaign because I’m making a choice to spend more time with my family.

Can’t:      I can’t get involved with the team’s campaign because I have a conflict this month.

I Choose: I’m choosing not to get involved with the team’s campaign because I’ve already committed to work on a project at home this month and I’m choosing to honor that commitment.

Imagine if you were the asker and someone was honest with their choices and priorities in this way and made it clear that they were choosing something else. You may not like the answer (because you wanted a yes), but it’s extremely difficult not to respect it and even more difficult to keep pushing for a yes in the face of an honest communication of choice. This is even more true when you state your response in terms of honoring other and prior commitments. People and askers will typically respect honesty, choices and commitments, and the clear no. If you’re wondering, there’s a clear no in each of the above examples: “I’m choosing not to.”

Trust me, when you choose to be simple, clear and direct, when you avoid certain words and phrases (can’t, busy and but), and you own your choices and commitments, you’ll find not only that your no’s are respected, but that you’ll get fewer and fewer pushes. Admittedly, implementing the foregoing “no tools” can still be challenging, and (no but here!) these tools will help you set more boundaries and deliver more no’s despite some of the old voices that caused you to say yes when you really wanted to say no.

Okay then, I know that you’re all asking one question – and of course you start with a but – but what about work? You’re right that all of my examples above related to a non-work question; however, the same tools apply at work.  The only question is whether you’re willing to take the initial risks. The ultimate risk is the no because we believe that if we’re asked to do something at work, we have to say yes. This is a lie.

Good (not even great) leaders and managers are more concerned about getting things done than about having people say they’ll do something (and then not getting it done). If you say “yes” at work but don’t follow through, it’s a failure for everyone – you, your manager, the team and the organization – and trust is broken and depleted. Leaders and managers would rather you say “no” or “not now” to open the door to a conversation about realistic expectations and commitments. If your manager is not open to hearing a genuine no or not know, then there’s an issue with their leadership. Any manager who wants you to say “yes” to make them feel better (even if it’s not realistic) is failing in their leadership.

Yes, there are bad managers and leaders out there, and one of the best ways to find out which you’re working with is to practice all of the no tools above. You can assume the worst of others, but the only way to know for sure is to take the risk (even in small doses) to give people a chance to be and lead differently. If you’re uncertain, then try these tools out in small doses at work. Another way to dip your toe in the water is to breathe, pause and ask this priority clarification question: Can we spend a few minutes talking about where this request fits in your priorities and my priorities?  You’ll likely be surprised at the ways that such a question is respected and responded to.

There you have it – three words to include in all of your no’s. When you incorporate the “I choose to” as part of your “no” boundaries, you’ll dramatically increase people’s acceptance of your no’s. It will also be a constant reminder that everything you do (or don’t do) is a choice and a choice that you uniquely control. Next week I’ll explore the fourth and final no tool – the not now.

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