Tools for No … Keep It Clear and Simple

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

Last week I introduced you to the tools for saying no – tools to help you improve and accelerate your “no” muscle. These tools won’t eliminate the various challenges to the no, but they’ll 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 pause and this week we’ll explore the keep it clear and simple tool.

The keep it clear and simple tool is, well, clear and simple. It relates to the way that you communicate your no’s and, coupled with the “I’m choosing” tool, is an impactful shift that will help you embrace and step into the no zone.

I’ve heard from hundreds if not thousands of people that they’re frustrated by people (the askers) who seem not to respect their no, and what I’ve discovered is that they’re wrong. Nearly everyone respects a clear no – the problem is that we’re not giving clear no’s. I know, I know – you think you’re being clear, but most of the clarity is only on your end. You know you want to say no, but what comes out of your mouth is vague, ambiguous and slippery. Why? Because you want to avoid the risk of being clear with your no, and you hope the asker will figure it out and accept your wishy-washy answer. 

Think about my example above with John and Phil – Phil’s answer to my request was one word: No! No preambles, explanations, excuses or rationalizations. Honestly, it was so clear and clean that I was speechless. I had nothing to respond with or to because Phil hadn’t given me anything – no hope or glimpse of a way around his no. Think about this truth when it comes to a sales situation. When you try to explain your no to a salesperson, they seem to keep digging around and working on a yes. However, when you say no (nothing more), they’re far less likely to try to push you. Even with persistent sales people, when I say no and they push on, I follow it up with something clear like, “I was very clear – no.” I don’t have to keep coming up with other things to say; I only need to keep repeating the simple and clear word, “NO.”

Most often, instead of just saying no (thank you, Nancy Reagan) we explain why we want to say no, but we never actually use the word no (again, hoping that the asker will infer the no for us so we don’t have to say it). Here’s a typical example:

  • Question: Can you help out with the team’s fundraising campaign?
  • Indirect Answer: I’d love to help, but I’ve a lot going on (work, family, church, education, etc.). I do think this campaign is important, but now isn’t the best time for me.

Sound familiar? Have you said similar things to askers in the past? Do you see the problem? There’s a great deal being communicated in the response, but one word is missing – no! These types of responses are designed with the hope to have the asker leave you alone and answer for you – to effectively get them to take the ask off the table. As you probably already know, this is usually not the outcome that occurs. Instead, the asker keeps pushing for a yes, you feel that your no isn’t being respected (even though you didn’t say no), and the outcome is often either a begrudging yes or a defensive no. You want to blame the asker, but this is on you, my friends. You alone have the power of the no, and if you choose not to use it, then the discomfort and outcome is on you.

Part of being simple and clear includes avoiding three key words and phrases – words and phrases that sound good, but which are not only unclear but actually invite the asker to follow up and even push. These words and phrases will also help to explain the reason behind what you perceive is a lack of respect for your no (in addition to the fact that you’re often not saying no).

Here are the three phrases and words to avoid when responding to any asker:

  • I can’t because _____________________
  • I’m busy
  • But

The first two phrases to avoid are related, especially when you want to respond, “I can’t because I’m busy.” This is actually the double whammy because it has two must-avoid words (can’t and busy). The third phrase is just one word – but – which by itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that the but almost always follows an affirmative statement and, as I learned many years ago, everything in front of the but is a lie.

Let’s start with the first phrase: I can’t. We all use it and at times even love it, but we all also know that it’s a lie. Whether we talk about it or not, we all know that “can’t” is the throwaway word that we often use when we really don’t want to do something. Can’t has become our supposed get out of jail free card, seemingly (we think) excusing us from anything we want to avoid. Let me clear right now – people (including askers) WILL NOT respect the can’t, and it’s naïve of you to expect them to.

How many times have you done, achieved or accomplished things that you thought you couldn’t? The same is true for all the askers out there, including you. By the way, when you want to start to sling arrows at all the askers, remember that there are times when you’re the asker. Are you learning from your experience as the asker, or are you inflicting on others what you’ve experienced as the askee?

No matter how much you want to believe that can’t is clear, simple and true, it’s time to pay the honesty piper. The truth is nearly always that saying you can’t is the cover up for the fact that you’re choosing not to – unless the ask conflicts specifically with some other commitment. And even then, you could still choose to say yes to this ask and say no to the prior commitment. In fact, we’ve all done just that many times in our lives (often based upon priorities or simply what we want to do more). This is why very few people respect the can’t, and if you choose to hide behind the can’t, then expect to continue to be hounded by all the askers (and appropriately so). Saying you can’t is neither clear, simple nor true, and it’s time to admit it.

The same truth applies to the busy excuse. Why? Because everyone is busy. The entire US population is busy at least. I’m not able to speak authoritatively about other cultures, but the American culture has embraced busy as the goal to be achieved, the top of the mountain. As such, we’re all busy, and therefore responding to an ask with “I’m busy” or, even worse, “I can’t because I’m busy” is almost insulting. Why would anyone respect your busyness when you wouldn’t respect their busyness? The reason the busy response is insulting is because the asker is already busy. Even if you think they’re not, trust me: they think they are, and yet they’re already involved and helping. Here’s the simple truth – if the asker is busy and still helping, then why can’t you help even if you’re busy? Not only will your busy response not be respected, but it’s likely to result in the asker being even more persistent. 

Admittedly, dumping the busy excuse will be a challenge for one simple reason – you actually believe it. You think that you’re the only one that’s busy and you think that being busy is all you need to say to an asker, but busy isn’t an answer. Busy is an excuse and often an insulting excuse, so dump the busy.

That brings us to the word “but,” which reveals everything in front of it as a lie. As noted above, “but” isn’t the problem – the problem is what the but is paired with. Let’s look at some examples, which quickly make the point:

  • Question: Can you help out with the team’s fundraising campaign?
  • But Answer: I’d love to help, but I [Insert dozens of possible “reasons” (excuses) as to why you can’t help (Oops, here comes the ugly “can’t” again)].

While it might be true for you that you really want to help, we’ve been culturized to use but as an out card to avoid doing something that we don’t want to do.  Most of us have also had the regular occurrence of using the but (and having the but used on us) to negate whatever was said in front of it:

I don’t mean to complain, but …

I’m a team player, but …

I want to be with you, but …

I take my commitments seriously, but …

Don’t take this personally, but …

I’m sure that you’re seeing the point. The but has become another escape and excuse valve in so many situations that it no longer has much credibility. Thus, when you use the but word when responding to anything you’ve been asked, first, you shouldn’t expect it to be respected and, second, you should expect that it will be seen and heard for what it most likely is –  an excuse. As you’ll see below in the “I choose to” section, there’s an alternative to the but that’s more likely to be respected (nearly always, in fact) and which is actually most true about your response. 

There you have it – three words and phrases to avoid when it comes to asks and boundaries: I can’t, I’m busy and but. While they feel true and clear, they’re just the opposite, they will not be respected and they’re keeping you from being direct, clear and honest – and from achieving what you want from your interactions. Next week I’ll explore the third no tool – “I choose to.” 

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