How to Say No Without Burning the Bridge
How to Say No Without Burning the Bridge


How to Say No Without Burning the Bridge

Many of us don’t like to say no to a co-worker or a boss, as we’re worried about damaging the relationship. That’s because it often feels synonymous with confrontation. Further, whether you are conflict-averse or conflict-ready, your counterpart may not always handle hearing ‘no’ the way you’d hoped.

Some counterparts will try to “yes the no,” because they have learned early on, not to take no for an answer and feel like pushovers if they do. Or they might get angry, push back, even go silent because that’s how they’ve always handle hearing a ‘no’. Some might be able to deal with a no privately, but are embarrassed to hear it in front of others and may want you to back down so s/he can save face.

With all of these obstacles, there is no single trick to saying no while keeping your relationship intact. You can, however, change your perspective on what you’re trying to do. Don’t look at it as a choice between a confrontation and preserving a relationship. There’s a middle option: the neutral no.

A neutral no is steady, uninflected, and clear. It is most notable for what it is not: harsh, combative, apologetic, reluctant, or overly nice.

Going neutral may not be your default manner of speaking, but it is well within your reach. A neutral no protects you and your counterpart(s) from the elements of a no that are really hard on relationships. Such as:

Giving false hope. If you say no tentatively, it’s easy for your counterpart to hope that you’ll change your mind. It sounds like your no is about to tip over into a yes, so your counterpart is encouraged to keep pushing. That false hope, even more than the no, may damage your relationship.

Weakening the No. People often argue their ‘NO’ backward: they start with lightweight reasons, holding back the real reason because of which they’re really saying no. But the little explanations are not persuasive and are easily batted aside. To limit frustration—and to avoid appearing disingenuous—give reasons with good weight up front.

By sticking with neutral, you concentrate on the business end of ‘No’, and not the person. You should be aiming for a referee’s neutral demeanour. A referee makes a call, regardless of strong feelings on both sides. Her job is to give the decision and stay with it if challenged.

You may also speak directly about the friction between you and your counterpart. To address the situation, try saying something like, “It’s hard for me to tell you no. It must be hard for you to hear.” Use your own language, but check that what you say is steady, uninflected, and clear. If you get pushback, keep these points in mind:

  • Stay on topic. If you think you know why your counterpart is pushing back, you can speak to her concern honestly: “You have a lot invested in what you’re asking, and it looks like I’m personally blocking you.” You can also give a good reason for your refusal: “I see my job as balancing valid but competing needs. That’s my focus.” If that creates an opening for an argument, it’s OK to have the discussion. Saying no shouldn’t be a monologue.
  • Stick with it. If you have a good reason for saying no, stay with it.  Listen to each argument that is presented by your counterpart, and reason out the point, while being firm yet calm.
  • Be realistic. People hoping to preserve a relationship often want to both say no and have their counterpart be happy. But the realistic response to hearing a no is often anger, unhappiness, or concern. If we distort our message in trying for an unrealistic response, our counterpart is likely to miss the point and we will have to say no twice.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that it’s essential to learn to say a no without destroying important relations. Saying no neutrally doesn’t necessarily come naturally to a person. To get better at it, practice ahead of time with someone who will push back. Eventually, it’ll become easier to say yes to saying no – without destroying or burning your bridges.

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