Part 2: Three Ways Powerful Leaders Can Practice the Art of Saying No

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Posted by: Dana Theus, Principal, Magus Consulting

Yesterday we looked at three reasons to say "No" – today let's talk about how to put this into practice.

3 ways to practice the Art of No

I recently read a blog by Steve Denning on Forbes, How to Say ‘No’ While Inspiring People. I clicked on it eagerly looking for new tips in the quest to refine the Art of No. But I was disappointed because none of Steve’s recommendations included the word “No.” I appreciate what Steve is trying to do, which is to find ways of limiting resource investment in ideas that aren’t going anywhere without demoralizing the people that have worked on them, and better yet, help inspire them. But in my experience, people prefer the truth above all and if the idea is dead, just kill it. They’ll thank you later if you did it gracefully and helped them spend their energy on higher priority projects.

Practicing the Art of No.

1. Get rid of the unsaid baggage

You’re the leader so you go first. Before you talk to the person, get rid of that negative emotional baggage you might be feeling. Even if you don’t think the person is a waste, we’re all programmed to feel it when we stomp on someone’s idea. (I don’t know why, ask a psychologist.) Take the time and have the strength to ask yourself questions like this to discharge the unconscious negative feelings and replace them with positive ones before you talk to them:

  • Is this person a waste? If the answer is no, replace the feeling with This person has shown great dedication, etc. (If they’re a waste, fire them.)
  • Do I bear some of the responsibility for letting this go on so long unchecked? If yes, be prepared to admit this to the person.
  • What have we learned through this effort we can apply in the future? Plan to explore this with them at length. They will feel heard and there are often the seeds of success in the remnants of failure.
  • Are you detached from it yet? If you’re still feeling sad over shutting it down, deal with this first. See below for some help on this.

When you talk to them, don’t let them put baggage in the conversation like, “I’m a waste cadet.” You’ve defused your baggage; help them defuse theirs. Tell the truth as you see it, “You’re not a waste cadet, you’re new to this kind of project and are still learning,” and encourage them to see the truth in the situation as well.

2. Give them a new challenge immediately

Help them see how disengaging them from the “No” thing frees them to focus on something even more important to the team’s work. Spend 1/3 of your time with them saying “No” and 2/3 saying “Yes” and focusing on the future. Share your enthusiasm and show them that they matter and are not a waste-cadet.

3. Help them detach by detaching yourself

Especially if they’ve put a lot of themselves into it, take some of your 2/3 “Yes” energy and demonstrate how you’re detaching from it yourself. Show that you’ve released your disappointment and are committed to success, even if what that success looks like has changed. Most importantly, find your positive belief that this “No” will help everyone get closer to the goal and share this with them genuinely. If you don’t believe it, neither will they. For guidance on detaching in a business context, no one says it better than Chris McGoff in the PRIME ATTACHMENT VS. COMMITMENT. Watch the video.

Of course Yes, No and Maybe aren’t always the only answer. There’s also a “Yes, but….” to steer something away from becoming a “No” while the project still holds value. That’s where Steve Denning’s ideas are very helpful and leadership judgment comes in. In addition to this we-can-still-save-it scenario, there is power in creating “creative-but-possibly-unproductive time on purpose” where everyone goes in knowing a “No” is reasonably likely in the end – as Google and other institutional innovators find in the power of time off . But those “time off” projects are designed to develop creativity in people; they are seen as an investment in the people, not the project. Saying “No” to commercializing their end product is different than shutting down something everyone was committed to seeing through to a “Yes.”

In the end, the leader still has to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. When the hand sucks, fold it and hang on to your chips. Come to think of it, good poker players have definitely perfected the Art of No.

Related Posts:

Part 1: Three Ways Powerful Leaders Can Practice the Art of Saying No

About Dana Theus

As a leadership consultant, facilitator and coach, Dana helps her clients access their power to step boldly into the future, to master the dynamics of change and transformation and to direct their energies towards changing the world for the better. She works with individual leaders, corporate clients and high-performance teams to help them access both their individual power and their power in group. When people and teams access their full power to affect change, amazing things can happen and reality can transform. Learn more about Dana at